48 hours in Hangzhou's flourishing arts scene: an insiders' guide
There is inspiration aplenty to be had in the capital of Zhejiang province, where intoxicating beauty and creativity can be found emanating from a pot of ink or a pot of tea
Away from the tourist hordes and Hangzhou's beautiful West Lake and wetlands, the Chinese city has an art scene just waiting to be explored. Olivier Hervet has been director of HDM Gallery's Hangzhou branch since it opened in 2013. HDM is devoted to promoting young Chinese artists working in all media. We asked him and some of his artists for their tips to discovering the city's art and culture - from ancient calligraphy to 3D cinema.
THE ACADEMIC CITY
A two-hour flight from Hong Kong, Hangzhou has always been the cradle of Chinese calligraphy and ink art. It's one of the old dynastic capitals and has been a main trading and cultural post for centuries. When Marco Polo visited in the 13th century it was the largest city on the planet; these days it's China's fourth-largest metropolitan area and home to the China Academy of Art (caa.edu.cn), the country's leading art university, founded in 1928 to help make art replace religion.
"The academy is so important to the city that its president is higher in rank than the mayor," explains Hervet. "It's the real focus for Hangzhou, producing China's best contemporary artists and helping make the city the largest ... centre of art after Beijing."
MUSEUMS AND STUDIOS
"The beauty of the city is that you can immerse yourself in the traditional arts, but you're also in the birthplace of the country's contemporary art scene," he explains. To understand more about the founding of arts and culture in the city, visit The China National Tea Museum (teamuseum.cn), the China National Silk Museum (chinasilkmuseum.com) and the Zhejiang Provincial Museum (zhejiangmuseum.com) on the West Lake, which has a collection of antiques, calligraphy and paintings from Chinese masters.
"Hangzhou is mainly a city for producing art and there isn't a big market for selling it, as there is in Beijing. So in terms of buying art here, you have three options," says Hervet. "There are the galleries - I recommend seeing Sanshang Art [sanshang-art.com]; then there are several local auction houses; and then many ink artists sell from their own studios."
Abstract painter Qian Jiahua is happy to see people in her studio, which like many studios is In the residential district of Zhuantang (close to the academy's newer main campus, which was designed by Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu).
If you discover an artist you are interested in, research their gallery or their website and ask about making a visit. "Plus there's the academy to visit, and you can meet artists and see regular exhibitions there," Qian adds.
Hervet's HDM Gallery (hdmgallery.com) is currently showing its most popular exhibition yet - of Ren Hang's inventive bodycentric photography, which will be on display until the end of September. "We can arrange studio visits if you're interested in buying and want to meet the artists personally," says Hervet. "There's a tight-knit art community here, and the younger artists especially are happy to discuss and show their work."
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
We asked some of the HDM Gallery artists for their recommendations for eating in the city. Painter Peng Jian told us about He Cha Guan: "This restaurant offers real Hangzhou dishes," he says. It's located in the grounds of the Fayun Village and Amanfayan resort, where it's also known as the Tea House. The owner, Miss Pang, is an antiques dealer and many of the tea sets on display are for sale. It's here that you can try the local Longjing tea, one of China's most prized and expensive brews. Home-cooked dinner is also served - there's no menu, just a set meal depending on what the chef found at the market that day.
Yuan Yuan, who studied oil painting at the academy, recommends trying the Gui Yu Shan Fang Restaurant (guiyushanfang.com). "It has a really good atmosphere. And a nice bar would be Eudora Station opposite the main academy campus. They have a live band every night and it's a very nice spot to meet a friend and have a bottle of cold beer." It also has a rooftop with a lakeside view.
Hangzhou cuisine is dominated by fish, and this goes for street food as well; around the lake in summer you can try the very popular battered crabs on a stick.
WHERE TO STAY
Hervet's recommendation is to stay at the Amanfayun (amanresorts.com), a former tea workers' village turned into a small resort set among tea plantations, bamboo forests and seven Buddhist temples. "It's such a peaceful place, amazing when you think it's only 20 minutes' drive from 10 million people. I think what it does really well is reflect the traditional side of the city; you could call it the art of relaxation. And it has its own art gallery with very interesting seasonal shows." It's currently showing local artist Jin Xinming's exquisite paintings of pine trees and mountains. The resort also offers a weekly programme of cultural classes including paper cutting and calligraphy lessons.
Hervet's second choice would be the Intercontinental (intercontinental.com). Be warned - as it's the polar opposite, a bombastic gold ball in the centre of town. "But it's next to one of the city's hidden art gems", he says. "In the adjacent underground Sasseur Life Plaza is the Zeyi Cinema, whose owner is a fanatic of the artist Sun Xun. It's just the most incredible sight to see an artist given free rein in a whole modern cinema multiplex with 3D and 4K resolution. I love it. Sun Xun was born into a circus family, so a lot of his works have to do with that - the artificial worlds of entertainment and animals. He's done wall frescos, as well as paper paintings and video installations. I come for the art, and then stay for the films."