Watching Them Go (Arrow Factory, Beijing, 2008-2019)

Installation view of “Badlands” by Zhao Tao, Zhang Xiuliang, and Zhang Mengmeng / Social Sensibility Research, 2016. All images and captions courtesy of Arrow Factory.

A Conversation with Rania Ho, Wang Wei, and Pauline J. Yao on 
Arrow Factory (Beijing, 2008-2019)

In the early spring of 2008, occupying a former vegetable stand in a small hutong alley in the center of Beijing, Arrow Factory was initiated by Rania Ho, Wang Wei, Weng Wei, and Pauline J. Yao as a response to the conditions contemporary art production was facing then. In September 2019, following “top-down policies disguised as ‘neighborhood improvements,’” Arrow Factory ceased its operations. In this conversation with three of its founders, we discuss the rapidly changing Beijing landscape and art scene and the joys and difficulties of running an independent alternative space within that context.

 Installation view of “Time Spent” Li Yueyang, 2014.


Dominic Zinampan (DZ): How did you guys meet? Were there projects you worked on or were part of prior to Arrow Factory? How was the core founding team assembled and what were the key events or circumstances that led to the formation of Arrow Factory?

Pauline J. Yao (PJY): I met Rania [Ho] and Wang Wei sometime around 2004 or 2005. I was living in San Francisco at the time. It turns out Rania was also from there but I think I met them during one of my visits to China as a curator doing research on contemporary Chinese art.

I moved to China around 2006. We were all living in Beijing, witnessing the growth of the contemporary art scene which was happening at an exponential pace and at a very spectacular scale. In Beijing, a lot of the galleries were inside compounds that were repurposed factory buildings, so we started to toss around the idea of doing something that was in a totally different direction, something that was really small or outside of these art districts.

I was back in California and Rania and Wang Wei were also there for something. We ended up making a drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco or vice versa which is like a six-hour car ride. During that trip, we hatched a sort of plan to do something. 

We didn't have money so we knew the space would have to be tiny, and we knew that this would present a different challenge than what we thought a lot of artists were doing at the time which was to just go really big. 

Rania Ho (RH): We were all friends and hung out together. Before Arrow Factory started, we had common backgrounds and we were reacting to this moment of this pre-[2008 Beijing] Olympics boom. There was mass-scale urban reconstruction. There were many moments of watching whole city blocks disappear. Making Arrow Factory was a way to process those kinds of dramatic changes and societal shifts.

Wang Wei (WW): The whole city was like a huge construction site. A lot of new buildings suddenly appeared.

RH: The impetus behind looking for small spaces within the city center was to be a counterpoint to a lot of large-scale art galleries that had opened in the repurposed factory district. At the time, those galleries were calculating that there was money to be made. Within that environment of lavish spectacle, we thought maybe there could be another way — something other than what those massive spaces required. Maybe going on a pilgrimage to the outskirts of the city to visit a temple for art was not the only way for this to work. We wondered if it could be possible to do something where people actually lived and worked.

Installation view of “Arrow Factory Grotto” by Ah Diao Dui, 2011.


Merv Espina (ME): How long did it take you to find the space?

WW: About three months. Actually, the space was across the hutong from the apartment complex where Rania and I live. At the time, we all lived near the center of the city which is the traditional area in Beijing. The space was a former vegetable stand. At that time, it was just after the Chinese New Year. Normally, people go back to their hometown for the long holiday, and the previous owner never returned to the space. I called the landlord to ask about the price and thought it was quite affordable so then I called Pauline and Weng Wei to tell them about it. It was the four of us. We started renting and renovating the space.

PJY: Sure, you could call that renovation, but...

RH: We changed the lock maybe.

WW: I think we rebuilt the floor, right?

RH: Yeah, maybe we poured some concrete.

WW: We built the movable wall.

RH: We built a wall on wheels with shelves on the back. It could be pushed closer or further away from the window to shrink or expand the space.

WW: Yeah, we just wanted to do something that did not look like an art space. It was very rough because I think we were already bored with clean white spaces by then.

RH: Or slightly anxious too. We were trying to be a bit undercover because we were coming from a situation where, eight or ten years before, the police would regularly come and shut down exhibitions. It was happening less by 2008, but we just wanted to be careful so we didn't make it too nice. 

ME: Regarding financially sustaining the space, at first you were doing it out of pocket and then, gradually, you entertained grants?

RH: Originally, it was out of our own pockets. After two years, friends started to offer donations. They would help pay for one or two months of rent. Rent was our main expense and we also provided a small production budget for each project. Later, we received a few grants and that helped us to cover rent for about three or four years.

PJY: In the beginning, we didn't have any idea how long the space would last. We were paying out of our own pockets, at first split between four people, and then eventually, when Weng Wei stepped away from the project, it was split between the three of us. Over time, we realized we really wanted to do these projects and would like to be able to give artists something so the production costs wouldn’t have to be paid out of their own pockets.

I'm trying to remember how the Foundation for Arts Initiatives (FfAI) thing happened. I think, somehow, we were invited to apply for this grant because somebody must have told them about us. They’re kind of an unusual grant-giving body because they would give you funds and there would be no strings attached. They’re really there to support these kinds of initiatives in any way. What they initially provided helped float us for a while and helped us to publish our first book, “3 Years: Arrow Factory.” 

There were instances where artists’ production costs would go beyond our budget but the artists would find additional funding either by paying for it themselves or by getting a little bit of money from their gallery. Selling was never an option at Arrow Factory so it was all about finding the money to realize something site-specific. I guess, from the artist’s gallery’s perspective, it was a pretty minor amount of money, and that’s the advantage of having a really small space: scale-wise, you weren’t dealing with exorbitant production costs.

Installation view of “Snowman” by  Li Jinghu, 2010.


ME: Did your neighbors have any favorite projects? Or were there exhibitions you consider to be turning points?

RH: The neighbors liked Li Jinghu's "Snowman" (2010). That was a project where he built snowman-shaped piles of toilet paper, salt, and washing powder. He comes from Guangzhou so he had never seen snow before in his life. He built these out of white-colored items and then sold them off so that the snowmen were “melting.” I think the local residents really enjoyed interacting with that piece, and also because the items were eventually marked down and sold at below market prices, so they got a deal.

We also had a project called “Time Spent” (2014) by Li Yueyang. He was an ex-con who spent eight and a half years in prison and he rebuilt his prison bed.

WW: He’s actually a friend of Li Jinghu’s.

RH: Li Jinghu and Li Yueyang (Ah Yang) were neighbors when they were younger so they grew up together. We met Ah Yang after he came out of prison. He had a car and he would drive us around Dongguan, which is the city where both he and Li Jinghu live. We initially thought he was a driver, but he was actually a loan shark. He was hanging around with Li Jinghu and we invited him to some exhibitions. 

At one particular exhibition, he saw a project that involved a bed and he immediately thought, “Oh, I have a bed. I'm gonna make a better bed.” So, he went home and, within two weeks, remade his prison bed from physical memory. Ah Yang got help from another friend, who was also an inmate and he helped with welding the structure. Apparently the two of them had heated debates over millimeters of accuracy based on their own experiences of sitting and lying on prison beds for years. Li Jinghu sent us some photos of the bed and it looked pretty stunning. He suggested that we come and look at it. When we went to visit, the recreation of the prison bed was just there in his living room. It was this very domestic scene: a long L-shaped couch, a big screen TV, a coffee table, and then a prison bed sitting off to one side. We made arrangements to ship the bed to Beijing, and had Ah Yang come to install the work. 

WW: He is a very funny guy actually.

RH: Yeah, I think we were a little bit anxious at first but it turned out to be great. He's a funny, sharp, and interesting guy who is very sensitive to space and light. He has a very interesting visual sense. 

These projects stand out because they’re a bit outside the norm. They became interesting ways, formats, or possibilities for the space.

PJY: I've always really liked Zhang Peili’s project, “38 Jianchang Hutong” (2010) where he had this wall on wheels and then he installed a mechanical device that would very slowly move the wall closer to the window and then go farther away from it. He projected a light onto the wall so the beam would change in size and that was the only way to tell that the wall was moving because it was so slow. It was a very clever way of engaging.

Also, there was Yan Lei's project which was part of this unfolding exhibition called “Just Around the Corner” (2009) involving many artists and projects. Groups of projects would be presented in succession for a month at a time. Yan Lei basically handed over the keys of Arrow Factory to one of our neighbors. The guy ended up renting it out to another of his friends whose house was being renovated, so somebody started living in the space for a while and was hanging curtains in front of the window. It was really weird but also a very interesting experience. It felt like the space was not ours anymore, we didn’t know who was living there, and what the situation was. We didn’t know what was going to happen when the day came. Will we have to kick this person out? In the end, on the exact date that we arranged for the return of the space, we found that it had already been vacated.

Installation view of “Void” by Liu Wei, 2013.

Installation view of “Perpetual Chimes” by Noah Sheldon, 2017.


ME: Were there other spaces that influenced the thinking and aspirations of Arrow Factory?

PJY: I think that my experience interacting with small nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area, like Southern Exposure and the Luggage Store, as well as other spaces in Chicago — which is where I'm from, Rania has a similar background to mine, and Wang Wei also has spent time in the States to visit; spaces like these became a departure point for us. 

It was not easy to build spaces in San Francisco so what many people did was to find something that already existed. What people ended up doing in those repurposed spaces was very much in conversation with either the surroundings or the existing architecture of the space. It made us wonder if we could do something similar in Beijing because there was so much new architecture and there was a lack of these kinds of reclaimed spaces. What you would find in the arts district were often typical white containers. There were some spaces that started off as being a kind of nonprofit, but many eventually ended up becoming commercial spaces. We knew that whatever we would do wouldn't be a commercial space; more like a place that gave artists the opportunity to work in a different way. 

Doing it in this cluster of the art district of course has its benefits, but also its downsides. As Rania was saying, an art district becomes like this little enclave where only the people who are interested in contemporary art would go. What about all the people who live elsewhere and didn’t even know that they would be interested to see something like this? And these districts were usually not in the center of the city but in the outskirts. We were starting to feel frustrated with that model of putting all the art together into one little zone. We wanted to have it much more integrated and mingled into people’s lives. 

RH: We can talk about this as a kind of extension of things that happened in the mid-‘90s, like Apartment Art, or people doing small-scale creative gestures in their own homes. But at that time, in terms of spaces with a public façade, there weren't that many — none, in fact. 

DZ: I'm curious about the Complete Art Experience Project (CAEP) and its activities. Do you see it as connected to Arrow Factory?

WW: CAEP was a collective of artists and curators working together. We organized a couple of exhibitions a few years before Arrow Factory started. We never invited artists from outside that group; there were different ideas behind this collective. 

RH: CAEP wasn’t fixed to a particular location or space. It was a collective where each artist would make their own work and then we would organize exhibitions together. Actually, the predecessor to CAEP was a group that Wang Wei was involved in called Post-Sense Sensibility. It was a group of artists and curators that self-organized exhibitions, events, and performances.

WW: In Post-Sense Sensibility, we liked to work in unusual spaces like, for example, in a theater or a movie studio. Each exhibition would only happen for a day, maybe for only two hours.

RH: I think this impulse for self-organized or self-initiated projects was there all along. Wang Wei was doing it in the mid-‘90s to the early 2000s. Members of Post-Sense Sensibility expanded into CAEP in the early 2000s, and a small tangent spun off from there that became Arrow Factory. I think Arrow Factory had similar impulses to its predecessors, that motivation of: “Oh, here's a space. Let's do something.” Maybe that could be seen as a kind of thread or throughline, but the formats of each of those groups and the types of projects created were very different.

WW: Yeah, I think the biggest difference with Arrow Factory was how its audience was mostly the neighbors. That is also the most interesting thing about it.

Installation view of “It’s Not About the Neighbors” by Wang Gongxin, 2009.


RH: I don't think we helped educate or enlighten our neighbors in any way, but perhaps we raised their tolerance level for things they didn't understand by a few notches. Maybe their attitude was more akin to: “Okay, whatever, I don't get it,” but we noticed that they started to learn phrases like “performance art” and “installation art” and started using these terms after a few years.

Sau Bin Yap (SBY): What kind of conversations did you have with the neighbors such that you discovered they started using terms like “zhuang-zhi-yi-shu”?

RH: We would casually chat with our closest neighbors, the pancake shop owners and the tailor next door. With the other local residents, we wouldn’t have much direct interaction, but if the tailor or the pancake shop people asked about what we were doing, we might reply, “Oh, this is an art space” or, “This is installation art (zhuang-zhi-yi-shu).” Since we didn't work onsite, we would just install a project, lock the door, and walk away. When visitors and passersby saw the works, there was no one to ask if they had questions, so they would naturally approach the tailor and the pancake shop owners because they were there, working next door. Since we used these words to describe the projects, the tailor and pancake shop owners adopted these terms when talking to others. I think that in that process, these two adjacent neighbors began transmitting the phrases out. That’s my guess.

SBY: That's interesting. In a sense, they became collaborators or your PR officers, proliferating some of the ideas or terms to the rest of the neighborhood. I get the idea that, somehow, Arrow Factory operated at a kind of intersection because your studio was not there so it's basically a storefront exhibiting work and the work has, in a way, certain formal elements in how it engages with the space. Yet, you also have a different set of agency or actors coming in to explain, perform, or interact, and it becomes a kind of interjection into the public space which works quite differently compared to what you would think is a social engagement project nowadays. I find that quite interesting and humorous in a way. 

PJY: We’d have small interactions with the neighbors but we were not necessarily articulating or interpreting this work to any kind of public. It was just there, open to any kind of interpretation from anybody who came and walked past. It was the neighbors who spent more time there, running their businesses 12 hours a day. They formed their own relationships to the works, not really dictated by a person communicating or articulating. 

Although we would tape up a little paper on the glass which was sort of an extended exhibition label, it would often either fall down or not be really legible. It was unobtrusive because, again, we were always trying to be a little bit camouflaged. But, if someone really wanted to stop and read the text, they could. That was an interesting part of the project: we were engaging with the community but we also were not in a sense; it was just there and we didn’t actually put ourselves in that role of being interpreters.

RH: It was a passive engagement. We sometimes made statements like, "All of us in the neighborhood get to live with the art." But, in actuality, our neighbors didn't really have a say in the matter, we just sort of forced it on them: "Hey, we're gonna put this thing here, in your field of view, for a couple months.” We didn't ask if they had any questions; we left no contact information on the door.

Installation view of “Go Jian Quest” by Wei-Li Yeh, Li Mo, and Kong, 2014.


ME: I think in some interview, it was Rania who mentioned that there was a desire to explore these undefined gray spaces. That's something that I really appreciate about the Arrow Factory tactic, you kinda just found a community and that became your audience.

RH: Yeah, deep intervention into neighborhoods that did not ask for it.

ME: How was it? I mean, speaking of the neighborhood over the years you were there?

PJY: They still live there.

WW: A lot of the neighbors managed small businesses, like handicraft or vegetable shops. But around three years ago, the government started closing them and blocking the street so a lot of people started leaving. We gave up our space because we learned from the landlord that the building actually belongs to the government. 

RH: It was subsidized housing. Basically, [the landlords] took public housing, jacked up the price and rented it to us for profit. The government was letting it happen for a long time because it was helping a lot of people resolve their unemployment situations. Government agencies allowed those living adjacent to the street to blow a hole into those walls and turn their spaces into commercial storefronts. So that's what many did.

Recently, the government has changed tactics. The main goal seems to be depopulating the center of the city. One way of depopulating these areas is to make it less attractive and inconvenient to live here; bricking up all the hole-in-the-wall shops adds to the overall inconvenience. That's part of why Arrow Factory got shut down. The landlord moved back into the space because if they didn’t, the space would be reclaimed by the government. 

WW: Several art spaces also faced similar situations last year, and were also closed.

RH: A lot of these “gray area” spaces were reclaimed. 

WW: Five years ago, there were many art spaces around us that were run by young artists and curators.

RH: Now, not many are left. In 2015, there were about ten other art spaces that had opened in this neighborhood. There was a mushrooming of these tiny creative initiatives. Some of them were storefronts, some were small courtyard rooms or apartments, and some were converted bomb shelters. It was really great. It seemed there was a rediscovery of the city center, a return into the old neighborhoods, and an interest in working at a smaller scale.

At one point, there was an informal network of small spaces. Although we didn't have that much regular interaction with them, we would occasionally go to their openings. Now that they're all gone, it's a bit quiet and lonely. It's not so interesting to be alone.

PJY: I would say — perhaps looking at the bigger picture — from about 2005 or 2006 to 2008 when Arrow Factory opened and up until a couple years ago when this closing of windows started happening, the neighborhood had been steadily becoming more hip, populated with these small businesses and restaurants and more foreigners began living nearby.

When Arrow Factory started, the neighborhood was already on that upward swing. You could sort of feel it coming. Along the hutong of Arrow Factory, there was already a small, cool clothing shop, tea place, and foreign grocery, and there were two other hutongs nearby that had even more of these types of businesses and those were even more populated.

WW: Even now, it’s still like that on those other hutongs, but obviously, not on Jianchang Hutong, where Arrow Factory was located.

RH: Yeah, so we want to be clear that this wasn't a campaign to shut down the art spaces; it was a campaign to clean up certain streets of all their makeshift storefronts. There wasn’t some culture war going on. I know some writers like to make this assumption, but this wasn’t the case. It was more like an economic reshuffling.

Map of Arrow Factory. Taken from Arrow Factory website.

ME: What was the conversation like with regards to closing? Were there other factors?

RH: It was pretty basic — we couldn't use the space anymore. In the past, we would have an annual conversation: “Do we continue or not? Is it worth continuing?” And every year, we would go on because the process of running Arrow Factory was enjoyable. It was great to be able to present the projects. Of course, there always were slight hassles here and there, and it takes up a bit of time, but ultimately it was very satisfying to do. 

When we got the call from our landlord in September 2019, we eventually came around to realize that we had no choice but to leave the space. Our conversations shifted towards the future, questioning things like: Is it still Arrow Factory if we move to a different location or change the format completely? I don't think we've really resolved that question, yet. Will it appear again in another place? I don't know, maybe. Who knows? We haven't really decided. But in that space and in that format, we couldn’t do anything more. It's done. It had to close. 

There wasn't much of a conversation. I think we just texted Pauline saying, “Looks like Arrow Factory has to close.”

ME: From that text message to Pauline till the time that you had your last project, how long did it take? What were your preparations for closure?

PJY: It was really brief. This interview is now almost exactly a year since we closed. We had this last little karaoke party thing on September 30, 2019. I think I probably received that text message at the beginning of the month. It was weeks at most.

RH: Two weeks at most. I sent Pauline a message saying, “We just got a message from the landlord...” Actually, our landlord told us that we could keep renting the space (they were of course interested to continue collecting rent money), but we received specific instructions to permanently close the window. If that was going to be the case, then what’s the point? That window was so important. It was how we interacted with the street and the audience. It was a membrane of contact and exchange. Without the window, people would have to come into the space through the back door, it would be like any other gallery space. Only those who knew we were there would come to see the works.

ME: Do your neighbors still ask you about Arrow Factory?

RH: The street used to be really lively and there were so many shops. We had reasons to interact with our neighbors because we would frequent their businesses. Now, there are no shops on that street at all. We have very little interaction with our neighbors. A few are still living there, but now we don’t have any excuses to run into them. We don't stay on the street because there's nothing to stop at; it’s just a channel to walk through.

ME: What do you think may be the lasting ideas from Arrow Factory that influenced the Beijing or Chinese art scene, ideas that you could see in other people, practices, and spaces?

WW: I think we showed a younger generation of artists and curators that something like this is possible.

PJY: Yeah. My feeling is that Arrow Factory helped other people see that it's possible to do something the way you want to do it. We were a very low-key and no frills project, we did zero promotion, and yet people seem to have found out about us. I think that, probably more than anything, it seems to have resonated that there could be such a place like that. You don't need to have a lot of money, you can do something in a different neighborhood or location, etc. That sort of model, the approach that we took, I think, wasn’t really something people had seen, so when they saw that, they thought they could do something similar. It was this sort of empowerment to just do whatever you want in however way you want and there isn’t a right or wrong way.

RH: It was an example of what's possible.


The online interview took place on 27 September 2020. This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Pauline J. Yao is Lead Curator, Visual Art, at M+. She has held curatorial positions at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and worked as an independent curator and writer in Beijing for six years, during which time she helped co-found the storefront art space Arrow Factory. Since joining M+ in 2012, Yao has played a leading role in building the visual art collection by overseeing and acquiring works from around Asia and beyond. A co-curator of the 2009 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, Yao is a regular contributor to Artforum International and is the co-editor of PODIUM, M+’s online publication. Her writings on contemporary Asian art have appeared in numerous catalogues, online publications, and edited volumes. Recently, she curated Five Artists: Sites Encountered, an exhibition held last year at the M+ Pavilion.

Rania Ho is a multidisciplinary artist working in installation and performance. Her works employ a humorous, unexpected approach to everyday objects and situations as a means of interrogating broader social or cultural concerns. Ho received her B.A. in Theater Arts from UCLA and a master’s degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University. She lives and works in Beijing, China and San Francisco, CA. Ho has participated in solo and group exhibitions throughout Asia, Europe, and the United States, including at the Growlery, San Francisco (2019); Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco (2018); Capsule Gallery, Shanghai (2017); CASS Sculpture Foundation, UK (2016); BANK, Shanghai (2014); Meta Gallery, Shanghai (2015); Observation Society, Guangzhou (2013); St. Andrews Museum, Fife, UK (2013); Shanghai Gallery of Art, Shanghai (2011); Collective Gallery, Edinburgh (2011); Platform China, Beijing (2010); Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City (2010); and Long March Space, Beijing (2008).

Wang Wei was born in 1972 in Beijing, China. In 1996, he graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Now, he lives and works in Beijing. Wang Wei is a multidisciplinary installation artist who looks at how the navigation of physical spaces can inform us about our own lived reality. Through modifying existing architectural structures with subtle, surprising additions or appropriating stylized features from disparate sources, Wang Wei has developed a strong practice around interventions that aim to disrupt human perceptions of space while opening a dialogue about construction, labor, and ways of seeing. Wang Wei’s work has been exhibited in series exhibitions including the Thailand Biennale (Krabi, Thailand, 2018); the 2nd Yinchuan Biennale (MOCA Yinchuan, China, 2018); California-Pacific Triennial (Orange County Museum of Art, USA, 2017); and the 2nd CAFAM Biennale (CAFA Art Museum, Beijing, 2014).

More info:
Arrow Factory website
Arrow Factory press
Pauline J. Yao. “Small is the New Big: The Arrow Factory” in Creating Spaces: Post-Alternative Spaces in Asia (2011)
Laura Morgan. "Boringly Bizarre: Arrow Factory Founders Rania Ho and Wang Wei." (25 Mar 2010)
Pauline J. Yao in conversation with Anna Dickie (31 Aug 2015)
"Arrow Factory: An Evening with Rania Ho and Wang Wei." (12 Jan 2016)
Edward Sanderson. "Artist Run: Peeking Into The Arrow Factory." (21 Jan 2017)
Robynne Tindall. “Hutong Art Space Arrow Factory Announces Closure” (27 Sep 2019)
Beijing’s Arrow Factory Closes Its Doors.” (23 Oct 2019)
Carol Yinghua Lu. “How Arrow Factory Changed the Beijing Art Scene” (3 Mar 2020)
Complete Art Experience Project No. 1 - Incest.
Song Yi. “The 1990s Archives Part I: ‘Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion’ and ‘Supermarket: Art for Sale.’” (13 Jan 2016)


Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT) is a series of texts on defunct or inactive independent Asian arts initiatives that had crossed paths or ran parallel to Papaya’s own 20-year history. With new posts every Friday from August to December 2020, RPWT is kindly supported through a local grant by the Japan Foundation Manila.