In a CCTV documentary titled “798”, photographer Zhu Yan made the comment: “The factory workers displaced the farmers, the artists displaced the workers, and now…” but the director left out what should have followed, “… the tourists displaced the artists.”
Of course, the myth that 798 is a “cultural production zone” is perpetuated by the mainland media, and almost obsolete industrial patches across China look to the success of 798 as a model of “cultural industry”, a revival area preserving the remnants of an industrial past, but where creativity and commerce can meet to copulate and produce healthy economic offspring.
While that may be a lovely image, the fact is, there is some truth to it. The documentary is a rather sobering look at the quickly vanishing former life of “798”––Factory 718. In the 1950s it was a state of the art center of production, a place of national pride, and a household name that symbolized a better future. Workers were hand-picked for their class background, plucked from the fields and clad in blue to make radio electronics, among other classified military gear; they worked with some of the most “avant-garde” technologies of the day. Military components aside, none of this sounds unfamiliar with the tourist “cultural production zone” we know as 798.
Fifty years later, the changes are incredible. In the five-part documentary we meet laid-off former workers who are now janitorial staff, and the dwindling industrial staff (once more than 10,000, now less than 3000) tells stories of the past: homes of the newly-wed were furnished with a bed, a desk and a cabinet (many had never had their own bed), 8 hour shifts were followed by night school, and infants were picked up from an parking-lot sized nursery, while not-yet school aged children were locked in the one-room apartments while their parents “struggled” to build a strong China. “None of this was looked at as strange,” comments Ms. Gao, who still works in th ecomplex. Her last student, Ding Ding, a young worker and his very dour wife are filmed in their run-down apartment; his 700 RMB monthly salary is barely enough to feed them. I don’t think I can stomach buying a substandard 35 RMB coffee there ever again.
With nary a mention of contemporary art, the series is a historical and grimly patriotic portrait of a very different 798; it was filmed in late 2007/early 2008. The CCTV site has photos and some historical background here. I thought of an article translated last year for the Timezone8 book “Beijing 798 Now” on the former incarnation of Factory 718. It is especially interesting to read how earthquake standards in construction had to be enforced by the East German engineering team. Its a long article, but has some interesting facts. For Chinese, switch languages on upper right.
From 718 to 798
Dashanzi: Beijing’s northeast corner
This district has already experienced two drastic turns of fate. First, fifty years ago, when the 718 was constructed and made a name for itself across China, and now, as the rise of the 798 Art District has brought a “renaissance” to the district, carrying its name overseas. Factory 718 was the celebrated former incarnation, and was one just short of legendary. During China’s “First Five Year plan” era, and with the support of the German Democratic Republic and Chinese national professionals, young people from all corners of the nation converged to build this northern Chinese state-owned factory for radio electronics—it was to be the birthplace of China’s electronics industry. In the beginning, Factory 798 was merely the third stage of the larger Factory 718 compound, and it lay on the outskirts of Beijing. However, this district has already been swallowed by the city’s growth, and become Chaoyang District’s first cultural industries zone, and yet still maintains its status as a center of production for Zhongguancun Electronics.
Today, the symbolic Bauhaus architectural complex still stands, the complex has been entrusted with the industrial history of a city. The transformation from 718 to 798 documents the course of urban industrial restructuring.
The Birth of 718
In April of 1951 the second round of Sino-Soviet summit talks were held in Moscow, China’s request for Soviet aid in the building of 156 major projects was on the table for discussion. However, the Soviets felt that China’s request to help establish the foundations for a new radio electronics industry was too unexpected.
“If the Soviets cannot undertake the responsibility for radio electronics components, then we can still talk with the East Germans . . . we can consider this a form of military trade.” This official memo from Premiere Zhou Enlai, traveled in the hands of the Chinese delegation that attended the first Berlin Trade Summit, and along with a purchase order requesting help in building a radio electronics components factory was transferred from Moscow to the German Democratic Republic. The radio electronics components factory being proposed in the memo was Factory 718, and in later became the 157th foreign-aided project of China’s first Five Year Plan.
Before long, one of the members of the East German delegation, Luo Peilin, began his personal investigations and travel arrangements. He had just returned to China from the California College of Science and Engineering, and was appointed the Head of the Office of the Telecommunications Industry of the 50th Scientific Division. The East Germans attached great importance to this memo requesting aid, and accompanied by East German engineer Nagler, Luo Peilin surveyed factories and research institutes in close to 20 cities, and investigated over ten thousand kinds of product specifications.
“We don’t want funds for technology, we’ll only take funds for facilities, but there isn’t a single person bargaining with us,” Luo said. But the amicability of the East Germans touched him, he still clearly remembers the words of one East German professional he worked with: “We spent 10 years working through these technologies, and you learned it in one day.” In the end, Luo Peilin decided to import more than 80 products from 18 factories, with a preliminary total estimate of RMB 140,000 (approximately RMB 140 million in today’s currency).
The East German experts organized a small group in charge of machinery design on account of the Factory 718 project, the architecture was commissioned to the revered Bauhaus University Weimar, and advocated by the German Dessau Design Academy. In 718, no matter if it is a saw-toothed factory building or any other shape, even the relatively common factories, all the architecture is in the Bauhaus style, invariably built to service the lifestyle and production needs of a modern large-scale industry. Many years later, when a group of American architects visited the 798 arts district they unexpectedly discovered the world’s largest collection of existing Bauhaus architecture preserved here.
In October of 1953, the National Planning Commission approved the factory plans that Luo Peilin brought back with him. In December, the director of the East German Radio and Telephone Industrial Bureau, Hickmann, and five of his assistants brought the first stages of a Factory 718 proposal to Beijing. Half a year later, these initial plans were finally approved; construction on 718 officially began. From blueprints to factory, the builders of 718 were to experience more than 1000 sleepless nights.
Support From East Germany
The selected location for the 64,000 square meter Factory 718 was in the northeastern part of Beijing, Dashanzi. This was on the fringes of the city, and was also land marked for industrial use. Although this piece of low-lying land was not the most convenient for construction due to scarce signs of human habitation, the land solicitation process was exceptionally smooth, at 32 Yuan per mu, it was the exactly the same price as surrounding land at a higher sea level.
According to the design, 718 would be divided into six separate factories, including six production zones, one dynamic factory zone, one auxiliary zone and one research institute.
In order to coordinate its construction, a “718 Factory Reinforcement Group” was established in Berlin under the direction of the Vice-Premiere Osner and was comprised of specialists from more than 44 research centers and factories, each offered solutions to various problems builders encountered. In late Autumn of 1954 the first delegation of specialists arrived in Beijing. Their construction office which was a temporary shed with flooring, and a furnace; until 1955 they didn’t even have a separate room in which they could cook their meals.
Throughout the continuous construction process there were various disagreements between the Chinese and the Germans. One of the longer disputes was over the degree to which the factory would be earthquake resistant. The Germans maintained that the factory should be able to maintain in earthquakes at 8 or above on the Richter scale, but the Chinese and Soviet engineers felt that resisting an earthquake at 6 or 7 on the Richter scale was adequate. This gridlock lasted for a long time, while the Germans consulted a great quantity of historical materials in order to demonstrate that Beijing had a history of earthquakes at 8 or above; ultimately the anti-seismic rating was determined at 8 or above.
In order to maintain this standard, the Germans wanted to use architectural bricks rated at a 500 grade mark, but, at that time, China had no where near such technological skill. The Germans selflessly constructed two brick kilns expressly for this purpose in Nanhuqu. Each brick from the kilns underwent intensive testing, and any single brick not up to standard was discarded. In the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, all of the buildings in 718 were unscathed. After that disaster, all of the anti-seismic ratings of buildings in Beijing were raised to 8 or above.
Another fierce dispute raged over the design of the underground civil air defense works. In the German design, all the principal buildings had underground civil air defense passageways; similar to long narrow hutongs they were only 2 or 3 meters wide, the walls were more than a meter wide, and also had bilateral exits. The first appointed director of the factory, Li Rui recalled that the Germans at the time thought, “In the event of war, even if it were bombed, only a portion would be disturbed, but an isolated bombing wouldn’t destroy the entire stretch.” The Soviet consultant thought this design was too wasteful, Li Rui then personally conferred with the German chief engineer, Dr. Pfeifer. After Dr. Pfeifer heard this he put on a stern face and asked in a harsh voice, “Director Li Rui, is this suggestion of your own devising? I don’t believe so! Under whose counsel are you proposing a change? You should be clear, and I also understand. You ought to know, that even though we are on the losing side of two world wars, our design is correct, and is taking responsibility for the Chinese citizens.” After that, high-level decisions were left to the authority of the East German planners; they were not challenged.
The first completed building in the Factory 718 complex was a general warehouse, the second building was the quartered Bauhaus-style saw-tooth factory. All of these jagged windows face north, ensuring a well-balanced and constant distribution of indoor light. The Germans call this kind of light “skylights.” The roofs on the saw-tooth factory are arcs, called “shell roofs,” at their thinnest point they are only 6 centimeters wide.
Assuming the responsibility for construction in Beijing was the “Second Construction Office of the Department of Construction,” which had formerly only managed the work at Hepingli, a stretch of 3 and 4 story residences. In regards to the factory that the East Germans were building, they were at their wits end. In order to help the builders understand how to construct the arc-shaped roof, German project engineers labored to build a special 1:1 ratio model of the shell roof made out of wood.
The construction of the factory was in midsummer, and the East German construction manager brought their translators as they climbed onto the roof to supervise the operations. Construction section chief Xiao Changhe, who was partnered to the East German construction manager on all of the four factories, recalls, “It was very hot on the roof, he stood on a very thin wooden plank and directed the concrete pouring, the guards and us were all on edge, afraid that he might fall.”
There was also a dangerous accident while constructing the factory: late one night, shifting sand appeared at the southwest pillar base of the fourth factory; after shoveling out a bit, water from underground began gushing out like a fountain, it was filling in the concrete and seemed unstoppable. In the middle of the night the workers called the East German construction manager to come over. Right on the spot, he told them to pour dry concrete directly into the pit until the gushing force and pressure on the concrete was balanced, then the shifting would stop. Later, this trick was also used during the building of the Xizhimen subway.
The construction of Factory 718 was nonstop, 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. Beijing’s winter temperatures can easily reach -16˚c, and the East-German construction manager was worried that these extremely low temperatures would result in brittle steel materials, that the cranes might be dangerous, and thus taught the workers how to use a patented German trick––the “Thaimann steam curing techniques”, which is the use of steam to maintain the concrete and construction materials, which ensured that their engineering efforts could run smoothly. Moreover, he frequently organized talks on responsibility, and often went outside of Factory 718, in fact moving to the neighboring Factory 774, bringing no small benefit to many young people. The construction manager’s background in formal education was not exceptionally high, but his skill and his moral character earned him the respect of his workers. In 1956 one of these workers personally send him off, presenting him with an axe and a carpenter’s plane in remembrance of their times working and struggling together.
In September of 2007, the 798 Creative Culture Festival opened, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Factory 718; the 79 year old Baker and the 80 year-old Dobras were invited to return to the factory compound. Dobras’s first words were: “Is my Chinese co-director still alive?” As soon as they saw each other, the two warmly embraced, this kind of enthusiastic event wasn’t allowed at their separation 50 years ago. Now, in their 70s and 80s, their sentimental display of affection is more revealing than in their youth. “It was very complicated work, but Mr. Dong was an intern at our German factory, and to great effect. There’s no great difference between the two of us.” Dobras’s most recent trip to Factory 718 was in 1998, at the time the Third Factory and the magnetic materials furnace that he once worked on had not yet been demolished, in fact, they were still working very well. “Did you upgrade to a new one? Our German furnace stopped working many years ago,” Dobras was very gratified. Baker was an expert in high-frequency materials and ferrite, when he first came to 718 he was 28 years old and recently married; when talking about Chinese architecture at the time he sighed, saying: “Everywhere there are people laboring. It is the passion of the Chinese people that have made this place so beautiful.”
The Chinese Builders
On Factory 718’s Chinese side was a team of young, passionate, and intrepid builders. When the director of the earliest Preparatory Committee and first appointee to the position Luo Peilin, began to busy himself with the task he was only 38 years old, had studied abroad in the United States and later became an academician at two institutes. The first appointed factory director, Li Rui, was originally the Vice-mayor of Zhangjiakou; he was 33 years old. The vice-director of the Preparatory Committee and chief engineer of the Second Factory, Qin Yishan, once worked in the Military Commission of the CCP at the Cypress Hill Factory, when he joined the Factory 718 project he was 27 years old. The chief of the Preparatory Committee’s Project planning group and chief engineer for Factory One, Wang Siqi, came from Tianjin’s Western Electronics Factory when he was only 27 years old. Responsible for coordinating the building affairs with the Beijing Municipal Party’s Industrial department and Military Affairs was Han Boping, who was also 27 years old. Many recent graduates were to the Zhangjiakou Communications and Engineering Academy to study the German language for 9 months, they were Factory 718’s first wave of graduates.
Beijing’s industrial foundation at the time was weak, and many since neglected matters were beginning to be dealt with, but there was a shortage of technicians and skilled laborers. Beijing’s initial intention for 718 was to expand its ranks of industrial workers. At the same time as workers and staffers were being transferred from Tianjin, Nanjing, Wuhan and Jingdezhen, thousands of middle school graduates and educated youth were pouring into Factory 718. They were coming even from two schools in Guangzhou and Shantou, assembling over 300 overseas Chinese from Japan, Singapore, and Canada.
In order to improve industrial capacities, the factory complex sent two batches of technicians to Germany for internships. The first group sent to Germany included 10 people, each person was responsible for learning about one product and one technique. The East German teachers first walked these Chinese students through the biology, chemistry, and optics laboratories, and then took them to the production line. One of these first students, Chinese magnetic materials expert Feng Huaihan, studied with a mold design master craftsman. “He was an old man on the verge of retirement, but before I could even ask, he taught me everything there was to know about designing molds,” Feng Huaihan sighed, “At the time, I didn’t even know how important that was. Those skills benefited me my entire life.” Later on, Feng Huaihan’s notebooks from his time studying in Germany became invaluable teaching materials for all the Factories in 718.
The Golden Era
Factory 718 began production in May of 1956. At this time it already occupied a space of 500,000 square meters; with an architectural area of 149,800, it was a colossal gross investment totaling 147 million Yuan. In addition to electron tubes, the factory could produce all the basic components for radio electronics. The People’s Daily called Factory 718 the “Nation’s first large-scale modern comprehensive factory manufacturing electronics components.”
Factory 718’s operative design was thoroughly planned, and many other factories followed its example. Among the paper capacitor workstation an exhaust fan was installed that pulled away the stench of the welding fumes. Not only this, but many of 718’s methods conform to the current idea of the business cycle. Burning coal was used for 60% of the heat source, the remaining percentage was used to generate electricity. Also, the coke produced from the carbonization of coal gas was precisely the raw materials needed by Factory 774; this kind of melt down and recycling system became the earliest circular economy. Even the workers derived pleasure from this form of recycling: the water from the cooling generators was used for the workers bathhouse, swimming pool, and the workers even admired tropical fishes raised there in wintertime.
On October 7th, 1957 the entire Factory 718 complex held a grand opening ceremony, Vice-premiere Bo Yibo cut the red ribbon, both the Chinese and East German Vice-premieres gave speeches brimming with enthusiasm. On the eve that most of the German specialists returned home, premiere Zhou Enlai held a magnificent banquet at the Beijing Hotel to award them with medals of friendship; upon these pink certificates was written: “To thank you for your sincere, enthusiastic support for the Chinese nation and the building of socialist enterprises, we would like to confer upon you medals of friendship.”
The melancholy of their departure played down the joy of the factory’s opening. In that era, farewells were not luxurious and filled with trivialities, most people simply exchanged books and reciprocated with cards. In 1959, as the factory’s very last special permissions engineer, the 60 year old Will was preparing to board his train, several of the factory managers rushed towards the front gate of the train station sending him on his way. “He is a great fan of China, he even thought of staying here,” his colleague Bao Jiguang recollects. “When he left, everyone was very sad. The word ‘no’ was simply not a part of his vocabulary. No matter what kind problems he encountered, he never backed away. To be sure our national products conformed to standards, he thought up many methods.”
After the departure of the East German specialists, Factory 718’s products found many uses in military and civilian affairs. On the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, all the lighting and electric components for the “Ten Great Engineering Projects” were made at Factory 718, all of the loudspeakers along Chang’an Road were also manufactured at 718. All the necessary command components for China’s first 600-kilometer range ground-to-ground guided missiles, “No. 1 East Wind” were also from 718, as were those for controlling its speed and acceleration. During the Cultural Revolution, the movie version of “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” includes the famous aria sung by Yang Zirong: “Penetrating the immense forest, straddling the snow-covered fields, extraordinarily heroic…” which was recorded in the studio via a 1 x 2 meter large reverberation machine provided by 718, this helped produce the spacious sound effects.
Upon the weak foundation of China’s radio electronic industry, 718 supported the establishment of other third-line factories in other provinces and cities by sending over a numerous skilled persons; and just as East Germany assisted China, delegations were sent to other socialist nations. The more than 70 German-Chinese translators were sought after throughout the nation to translate various German industrial texts.
At the same time as the construction of 718, the Dashanzi district also built Beijing Electron Tube Factory 774 and Beijing Telegraph Factory 738, as well as other large-scale modern factories, state-run cotton mills, and Nanyuan Airport was also under construction. When the first Five Year Plan was over, Beijing’s gross industrial output value had reached more than 2.1 billion, in 1949 it was a mere 170 million. With its beginnings here, Beijing gradually had the imprint of modern industry.
From Factory to Arts District
In order to better manage the area, in April of 1964 the Fourth Machine Industry headquarters abandoned its former organizational system, each individual factory became a direct subordinate to headquarters, including factories 706, 707, 718, 797, 798 and 751. In the wake of the era’s progress, electron tubes were replaced by semi-conductors; the former Factory 718 was vacated and rented out. From the 1990s to the beginning of the new century, with the arrival of artists’ studios and homes, the name 718 gradually faded from the peoples’ memory and Factory 798 became synonymous with the creative industries. Just like half a century before, the area still maintains a prolific life force; the very same place, and the same spaces are now manufacturing something of a completely different worth.
translation by Lee Ambrozy