Aug. 16, 2008, 11:10 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The stark white entrance leads to a tube of old newspapers encased in steel mesh. Small televisions offer shows from around the world as visitors make their way up and down, left and right across narrow metal steps.

The journey ends with a metal slide, landing in a room that includes an enormous cast of Chairman Mao's outstretched arm, a table full of used soap and a giant tent made of pink undergarments around the corner.

If that kind of contemporary art is your thing, the current exhibit inside the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is the place for you. If you're like me and don't really understand the meaning of Chinese characters eating watermelon in a parody of Da Vinci's The Last Supper, then maybe another gallery inside Beijing's 798 Art District would be best.

And the great part about 798 is there's a little something for everyone: contemporary, avant-garde, modern, kitschy, pop, surrealistic. Couldn't tell you the difference between the styles, but I do know 798 was cool.

The art district is set on what's succinctly called the 798 Space, a trendy spot in north central Beijing filled with about 400 galleries, shops, restaurants and lofts. Think of it as China's SoHo.

The 798 Space was once Factory 798, an ominously cold-sounding secret military factory designed by the East Germans in the 1950s.

Anyway, the rundown complex - which may or may not have produced electronics - became an industrial park and later a gathering place for underground artists. By the turn of the century, the artists started opening workshops and small galleries, the momentum building until it became the bastion of Beijing's artistic community.

Shockingly - OK, I'm being sarcastic - the Chinese government, which hasn't exactly had a history of supporting cultural diversity, tried to shut the place down to clear the way for new development. The artists kept fighting back, though, and 798 has become one of the city's most popular tourist destinations.

"Before it was just a place for artists to do some workshops, and now it's more and more commercial galleries, huge galleries coming from everywhere to set up," said Romain Degoul, director of the Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery. "It's very much one of the biggest places for art in the world."

I'll have take his word for it. I'm the kind of person who thinks impressionism is leaving two round marks in a leather chair with my backside, then giggling about it like Beavis and Butthead.

What I do understand is that Chairman Mao's communist doctrine probably didn't have a place for a bronzed statue in his likeness with his privates dangling for the masses to see. Same thing with the graphic lesbian kiss paintings or, my personal favorite, the nude women in hardhats posing around demolition sites.

Maybe that's what makes 798 so alluring.

China has been so culturally repressed for so long, witnessing a place like 798 come to life - Degoul says he can't keep track of how many new galleries open every day - is like watching a flower that's been buried under the mud for 50 years burst out in an explosion of color.

And this flower has so many different petals, from ancient tapestries and artifacts to impressionist paintings to esoteric pieces - like the massive craps table covered with coins that had medicine balls with Chinese writing sitting next to coffee can-sized holes.

To see so much life-lifting creativity coming from a place that once was a military installation is astonishing.

OK, maybe I'm getting a little over my head with this flower-petal, bursting-from-the-mud-of-depression stuff.

798 was cool. Leave it at that.

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