Posted by Pete DeMola on 5. Mar 2009
"Through design, we tell stories," said Ed Hung, co-founder and Business Director of the Beijing-based lifestyle brand NLGX. "It's how we view China via our graphic design -- it's a blend of culture. And our shop is a place to show our appreciation for what makes Beijing special in this time and age."
One of the capital city's most unique locales is Nanluogu Xiang: the famed lane in Dongcheng's Jiaodaokou neighborhood that was built in the mid-thirteenth century. Eight-hundred years later -- after weathering challenges by each successive ruling system and widespread infrastructural development -- the streets still maintain their original Yuan Dynasty-era layout.
Running about 800 meters from north-south, the titular street intersects eight east-west running hutong lined with well-preserved residences (siheyuan) in the traditional courtyard style that once housed wealthy Manchurians from the Qing-era.
The street and surrounding area is now a thriving center of commerce and a creative magnet with a myriad of boutiques, art galleries, indie record shops, watering holes -- and more -- coupled with streaks of timeless traditional flair: Local old folks kick it outside with their pet birds, while Wenyu Nailao (文宇奶酪店), the seminal dairy outlet said to be run by descendents of cooks from imperial kitchens, still draws massive queues for its famed yoghurt.
And the Central Academy of Drama, among the country's most famous, has remained a dominant institution and neighborhood influence since its establishment in 1950.
Northwards, this neo-bohemian melting pot eventually spills out onto Gulou Dongdajie, where a tree-lined tributary of guitar shops, cafes and dozens of other hipster hangouts fan out for blocks, with the Bell and Drum Towers looming overhead.
NLGX Design & Café, located at the intersection of Nanluogu Xiang and Ju'er Hutong, acts as a home base for the community that not only synthesizes the neighborhood's inspirational elements while acting as a preservational force, but can sling up a mean Italian gelato, as well.
NLGX was founded by three entrepreneurs (and friends) of Chinese descent: Ed Hung, Michel Sutyadi and Raymond Walintukan.
They met here, in the city they've called home for the past 4-5 years. The café was launched one year ago in March 2008.
"We're here to bring together a community and to promote the local [creative] scene," remarked Hung. "And Nanluogu Xiang is a great area for that," adding that the community is a cluster for independent artists fecund with talent.
Through their apparel, cross-cultural events, art exhibitions and community partnerships, NLGX seeks to create a community that "embodies the spirit of change while maintaining an appreciation for timeless tradition," the leit motif -- and a tough challenge -- in residing in one of the world's most dynamic and rapidly-changing cities.
"The shop itself is step one," Hung said, explaining that they would eventually like to build a global network using their project here as a launching pad. "But we're not about reinventing the wheel," he said. "We're all about collaboration."
NLGX maintains a variety of partnerships with community groups and NGOs, most notably with the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center: a volunteer-powered organization that operates at the grassroots level to implement platforms designed to preserve local culture, which range from issuing pointers on hutong maintenance and preservation to working with the Beijing Municipal Government in analyzing the conditions of Beijing's at-risk neighborhoods.
In late-October, the streets buzzed with the third annual Nanluogu Xiang Street Festival. Featuring handicrafts, street snacks, various cultural displays and live music (the Futon Jazz Trio piped out live jazz from NLGX's front window), the government-organized affair was a veritable embodiment of the trio's slogan: to "Preserve... Create."
NLGX's Creative Director Michel Sutyadi has a background in both creative design and advertising, which he uses to creative the brand's distinctive apparel. "I always wanted to do my own design," he said.
Their apparel, much of which is designed in-house (they also collaborate with local artists and designers) includes coffee mugs, hats, environmentally-friendly newspaper bags and T-shirts -- among others. "All represent China, but with a twist in style and graphics," he remarked on the designs.
"They all tell a story somehow that people can relate to," he said, citing the now-iconic bu chai movement as NLGX's most popular insignia and one that has received a considerable amount of support from the community.
The two characters, 不拆, ("don't destroy") have become familiar as a mark of protest on innumerable structures slated for destruction in the capital city.
Other designs that incorporate iconic Beijing imagery into funky gear include stylized depictions of the Beijing subway map, the plaid luggage bag synonymous with this country's migrant workforce, and of course, the ubiquitous bicycle.
In addition to their ongoing creative and preservation efforts, NLGX aims to organize and co-sponsor more events in the future to increase their reach and coverage.
(You may have seen them at DJ Babu's Beijing gig in December, or last month's People Under the Stairs show.)
What does the future hold for the neighborhood itself? "Landlords have really cashed in," says Hung on real estate values, citing that the increasing gentrification of the neighborhood is nothing new and is to be expected. "But the communities are still intact, with kids going to school and old folks are relaxing outside," he said. "As long as you see that, the balance is stable, and that's a good sign."
All of that is in remarkable contrast to their western neighbors Houhai, whose lakeside lanes are clogged with cheap tourist brummagem, pushy touts on wheels and a myriad of cookie-cutter bars that bare little, if any, resemblance to a residential neighborhood.
"After midnight, [this] area settles down," Sutyadi added in regards to how the high density of bars and restaurants affects the quality of life for the residents. "So it's not so crazy like in other areas."
But the paradox of preservation vs. economic development continues to linger: is it possible for the area to continue to develop in a way that sustains its unique charm, continues to be profitable for local merchants and remains a desirable tourist destination -- all while continuing to benefit the residential community?
"We always get that question," Hung laughed, stating that although preservation generally gives way to development, steps are always taken to assure sustainable development and cultural preservation.
They cite a commonly-used phrase, wenhua jie, or "culture street," that refers to protected areas that the authorities use as examples to showcase the city's ancient historical legacy to tourists. This area is among them.
The three also cite efforts of local shop owners associations and stringent government regulations designed to prevent the over-commercialization of the area, which includes enforced restrictions and regulations on advertising and signage. (Merchants can only display one logo outside, for example, and are forbidden to utilize barkers.)
But Nanluogu Xiang remains at a crucial point at the crossroads, considering only about three years have passed since the area's revitalization. "It's reached a plateau now," said NLGX Operations Manager Raymond Walintukan of the controlled growth. "No one is sure what exactly will happen."
NLGX will celebrate their one year anniversary this weekend, from Mar 7th-8th at 11am. Visit their newly-renovated shop, where all of their T-shirts and beverages will be Buy One, Get One Free.
33 Nanluogu Xiang, Dongcheng
Image provided by NLGX. From left: Raymond Walintukan, Michel Sutyadi and Ed Hung.
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