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The Chinese character for home (jia) is a picture of a roof over a pig. Fortunately, Chinese housing has come a long way since then. For most of us, a home is much more than simply a roof over our heads. It is a place where we can feel comfortable and relax, a quiet sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. The home is not only a safe refuge, but also a medium for self-expression. Restaurateur and art curator Sophie Guo and photographer Gao Bo are two Beijing denizens who have found innovative and imaginative ways to express their unique personalities in the space they call jia.

Collection of Memories
by Ellen Hobson

Gao Bo has reason to be happy. For the past two years the professional photographer has lived and worked out of his home in the peaceful suburban countryside of Changping county, north of Beijing. Far from the chaos of downtown, the house sits at the end of a weaving labyrinth of brick courtyard-style houses lined with ancient persimmon trees.

Today Gao, 36, is showing guests around his home, which he built from the ground up by hand. But usually you can find him working in his cavernous photo studio surrounded by his two passions: huge and hauntingly beautiful photographs taken from years of world travel and a small collection of wooden smoking pipes.

In 1996 the Harbin-born professional photographer returned to the northeast after years of wandering across China and Europe. Upon his return, he made a simple promise to himself: to find a suitable place to develop his large-format, black-and-white prints and to find a place to lay down roots.

"Setting up a house is one of humanity's basic instincts," Gao says. "When a child learns to draw, one of the first things he draws is a house, a garden, a tree."

But the more he searched, the more frustrated he grew. Finding a place in Beijing which was both large and tranquil enough at a reasonable cost proved to be almost impossible. Then, by chance, he passed through one of the many small villages at the foot of the hills in the western suburbs and stumbled upon the ideal place.

Discovering that the cost of land was considerably lower than purchasing one of the tightly-packed courtyards in inner-city Beijing, Gao and his wife immediately got an unlimited lease on a plot owned by the local community.

No building permit was needed. With only a limited knowledge of architectural planning, Gao went ahead with the project. He drew inspiration from the natural curves of the land, the resources of the countryside and a dash of traditional Chinese aesthetic savvy, to sketch out his designs. Built with the help of a somewhat bewildered gaggle of local engineers, the house is as much an example of resourcefulness and creativity as it is of architectural beauty.

Walking around Gao's house is like making your way through a complex maze. The layout strikes a fine balance between compliance with building regulations and artistic license. The building itself is shaped like a nautilus shell, with the front entrance tucked around the side of the building leading to an L-shaped living area.

Inside, pinewood steps wind around the corner of the living room to the main bedroom above. A cozy office sits to the side on a balcony overlooking the first floor. Split from the rest of the house by a wall is a solitary study, which can only be accessed by a set of wrought-iron stairs. Framed photos - silent footprints left by Gao's extensive travel - can be found throughout.

Since he first got his hands on a manual Nikon camera as a student at the prestigious Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing, photography has been his passion. With a refined eye for documenting the human face and a keen nose for adventure, Gao set off on a four-month trek across the high plateaus of Tibet and spent subsequent vacations taking closeup portraits of dwellers of China's most remote regions.

In the winter of 1989, his adventures took him to Paris, where he lived for almost five years and mastered French. He worked as photographer for Agence Vu, a local photo news agency, before he returned to his homeland with his French wife Delphine.

"I have never felt like a stranger, no matter where I find myself," he says. "In France, I found ways to blend into my environment. Feeling at home means creating a feeling of familiarity, a feeling of comfort with your surroundings."

The eclectic mix of Chinese and Western sensibilities is a consistent theme with Gao.

He wears his long, black hair tied back and sports a wispy moustache framing a small beard - looking a bit like a scholar in a classic Chinese painting. By contrast, he dresses in chic, black polo shirts and jeans and sips espressos with all the finesse of a French existentialist.

Gao sits surrounded by his own designs, from a stainless steel dining table paired with pinewood chairs, to pine stairs along the wall. A Chinese antique rosewood cabinet stands humbly against the wall, which Gao purchased from a street market while he was mentally drawing plans for his new home.

Other fixtures include Chinese regional artifacts and personal acquisitions. Among them, a collection of statue deities from Yunnan and Hebei provinces and the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal rest on stone shelves silhouetted against a white wall. Opposite, a casually sketched self-portrait hangs modestly between two magnificent Tibetan thangka prayer hangings.

"You have to be surrounded by objects that are close to you, that is what makes a place your home," Gao says. "Everything that I have in my house I have taken from my life experiences. Most things were not bought. They come from meeting people along the way. I collect, but I am not a collector in the same way that an antique collector buys antiques. My house is more a collection of memories."

Sophie's Choice
by Katja Gaskell

Sophie Guo looks like a modern-day Cleopatra. Her severe bob haircut frames her face, accentuating her sharp cheekbones and large eyes. Dressed elegantly in chocolate-brown suede trousers and a cherry-red Chinese silk jacket she radiates sophistication and charm. She has a charisma which attracts both beautiful people and objects. It is for these reasons that she looks completely out of place as we walk toward her flat in Beijing's "foreign ghetto" - Maizidian.

The 36-year-old Beijing-born art curator, and manager of the hip Spanish restaurant Ashanti, has been living in Maizidian since January 1999. A popular location for twenty-something expats in Beijing living on non-expat salaries, Maizidian seems an unlikely choice of residence for someone like Sophie. Everything about the compound where she lives - the burned-out auto, the vandalized ATM machine, the broken tables and chairs masquerading as garden furniture - is more reminiscent of Trainspotting than House and Garden.

Appearances notwithstanding, many Maizidian apartments are quite comfortable and Sophie's is downright luxurious. One of the things that initially lured her to this area were the split-level, top-floor flats. Unlike your average Chinese shoebox-shaped apartments, Sophie's has five rooms of varying shapes and sizes with high ceilings and sloping roofs.

Like many young urban professionals today, Sophie has moved countless times. Most people in a state of instability choose to live simply, out of suitcases and boxes, putting furnishing plans on hold until they "settle down" someday. But each time Sophie moves she transforms her abode into somewhere she feels she can call home. When she moved into her Maizidian apartment it only took her a day to put all her things into place, and not much longer to paint it.

"My friends always ask why I spend so much money decorating a place when I know I'm going to move on. But comfort is the most important thing for me, regardless of how long I'm going to stay somewhere," she says matter-of-factly.

It's a warm and cozy bohemian pad. The kind of place where you could imagine walking in and finding actor-types lounging on the large sofa in the living room or someone painting on the sun-lit balcony. The entire flat is decorated in subtle, warm colors. Hand-woven wool carpets from Xinjiang are scattered seemingly at random on the floors. Almost all the furniture is antique, including a Dickensian-style scribe's table that dominates the study area.

The living room is bright and airy and has been painted a warm cream white. Various paintings, some by her artist boyfriend Aniwar and others given to her as presents, are propped up against walls and windows. In many ways her flat resembles the Spanish restaurant she manages, with paintings by such contemporary artists as Feng Jiali and Yuan Yaomin, and subdued lighting and the odd piece of Cultural Revolution memorabilia. She laughs when I point out the similarities. "Everybody says that. I guess it's because I decorated both and they both have the same feeling."

And what kind of feeling would that be?

"Cozy," she answers without hesitation. "Everybody needs a place where they can feel comfortable, and I want my home to be a place where I can relax, where I can escape the chaos of Beijing. When people come to Ashanti I want them to feel the same way, as if they are sitting in their own home."

Simple colors and subdued lighting create an intimate, homey atmosphere in both her apartment and restaurant.

Sophie's large collection of lamps is arguably the highlight of her apartment. The most remarkable is a large bulbous-shaped lantern that hangs in her living room. It is made of sheepskin stretched tightly over a wooden frame.

"Lights and lighting are really important to me. They can completely change the atmosphere and mood of a room. My next flat is going to be very simple with white walls and loads of different lights," she says, looking around her as if already bored with her present surroundings.

Sophie has already made plans to buy a studio flat next year thereby putting an end to her nomadic existence.

"Isn't it every girl's dream to have a place of her own?

I don't want to move around anymore. I want to have a place that I can decorate and call my own, forever."

Home Furnishing
Shopping Directory


G Decoration
Liangmahe Flower Store, No. 1 Maizidian North Street, Chaoyang District (south of Lufthansa)
Phone: 6506-8395
24-hour store with a range of chic lamps

Guang Han Tang
Ganluyuan No 3, Qingnian Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 8577-4659/8578-3720
Antique furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties

He He Classical Furniture Company
No. 59, Liang Ma Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 6461-3728
Select collection of antique furniture

Hua Yi Classical Furniture Store
Store No. 1
No. 190, Dong Ying Village (take Bei Gao exit near airport expressway), Dongzhimenwai, Chaoyang District
Phone: 6432-1988
Store No. 2
No 89, Xiaodian, Dongwei Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 8431-2158
A range of antique furniture. Offers exchange policy and refurbishments

27 Beisan Huanzhonglu, Xicheng District
Phone: 6200-2345
Sweden invades the East with its range of practical, modern home furnishings

Legend Interior
Unit 313 Aidu Plaza, 2 Jiangtai Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 6437-9218
Interior decorating outlet

Linea Italiana Furniture
2nd Floor, South Hall, Furniture Plaza, Dazhongsi, Haidian District
Phone: 8261-2676
Modern furniture from Italy

Metis (Bei's Dining Room)
6 Workers Stadium East Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 6506 4046
A range of home furnishing goods, from cushion and quilt covers to table napkins

Ming Style Furniture Store
No 57, Liangma Collectors Market, Chaoyang District
East of Yansha Qiao, on the north side
Beeper: 1278180485
Reproduction traditional furniture custom-made from 100 percent rosewood

Unit 13-04, Landmark Tower 2, 8 North Dongsanhuan Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 6590-6270/6271-4
The Norwegians strike back with stylish office furniture

Oriental Gift
A-6 Workers Stadium East Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 6595-0998
Colorful Tibetan furniture, from box sets to cabinets

Beijing Qumei Furniture Company
No. 29 Xiao Yun Road, Chaoyang District
Phone: 6464-6301/6464-6302/6464-4492
Fax: 6464-4493
IKEA-inspired designs. Home to Innovation for things more modern


Chaowai Market
Hours: Open daily from 10 am to 6 pm

South along the East Third Ring road, about a mile past China World.
This open-air dirt market is home to a variety of furniture and curios. Beware of fakes!
Hours: Open Saturday and Sunday only, from 8 am to around 2 pm

Beijing Curio Market
North of Panjiayuan on the East Third Ring road.
A collection of antique and not-so-antique Chinese furniture.

Cultural Relics Assessment Office
Inside Friendship Store
Hours: Mon-Fri 1:30 pm-4:30 pm


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