THE WHIFF OF FRESHLY COOKED PEKING DUCK REGULARLY WAFTS DOWN THE ATMOSPHERIC BEIXINQIAO TOUTIAO ALLEY, IN THE EAST OF GULOU. ELDERLY LANE-HOUSE DWELLERS RELAX OVER MAHJONG TABLES AS RICKETY BICYCLES ARE RIDDEN PAST AND A DUSTY WHITE GOOSE IS REGULARLY SPOTTED WADDLING AROUND – WITH A SMALL SIGN AROUND ITS LONG NECK THAT READS: “DON’T EAT ME, I AM A PET”.
It’s one of the capital’s most atmospheric hutong lanes, and it’s where arguably the city’s most atmospheric studio space is found. Having been forced to close temporarily in 2018 due to local city planning rules, the art-saturated space reopened in December of the same year, bigger and better than ever. There are no neon signs announcing Auto Space’s existence to the outside world, just an inconspicuous doorway that those not in the know would be likely to brush past without glancing twice. Through that entrance, colour-splash artworks by twentysomething Beijing artist Yao Jingxiao dominate the space. Raised on metal stands, lightbox works by the same artist, characterised by broad Van Gogh-esque paint strokes, give the room a light-blue glow.
If owner Ray Wu is in the venue – which he almost always is – the soundtrack is likely to be gangsta rap and the gentle clicking of Wu’s scissors as he produces his own work. A hairdresser by trade, Wu has set up a cutting area in Auto Space’s backroom – also strewn with paintings – and happily chops at local arty types’ thatches while customers clink cocktail glasses. Ambient in the daytime, Auto Space cranks into a different gear at night when the amps are plugged in. Both secret and not-so-secret rock shows are the norm here. You’re as likely to catch a violin performance as an electro-rock band, with fans congregating on staircases as curious city sanitation workers in orange overalls poke their heads through the entrance, enticed by the noise inside.