Dazed Digital


Jellymon Meets Liu Yan of Xindanwei

December 12, 2011

An excluisve Satellite Voices interview series by the Shanghai studio and collective Jellymon interviewing some of the most influential creatives in Shanghai

  • Text by Satellite Voices

Guest Feature by Josh Atkin

As part of a new feature for Satellite Voices, Jellymon be interviewing some of the most influential creative people in Shanghai and finding out what makes their city tick.

This week we talk with Liu Yan CEO and co-founder of Xindanwei an inspired co-working community in Shanghai, set within a beautiful six-storey lane house in the Old French Concession.


Josh Atkin: Can you give us a brief introduction to Xindanwei and how it came about?
Liu Yan: We established Xindanwei about two-and-a-half-years-ago in July 2009 and the whole concept was the brainchild of organising one year meet-ups with my friends. This included one of our co-founders, who’s one of the most active new media artists in China. We met in Rotterdam when I was serving as advisor of a Dutch New Media Art Festival called DEAF and he was one of the participating artists. He highlighted to me the frustration of finding ways for people from different creative disciplines to work together. This gave me some thoughts, as the way I was used to working in Rotterdam was to embrace cross-disciplinary practices; it was part of every day life.

After trialing some large-scale projects, it wasn’t until 2007, when we came back to China, that we decided to embrace things on a smaller scale. Using our network from inside and outside China we started to build a community to tap into which is where the meet-ups came about. As the network grew and people began to inspire one another we knew we needed to have a system to help all the brilliant ideas be realised. The next logical thing was to find a space to accommodate this and so a co-working space seemed the natural evolution of our ideas.
Josh Atkin: What does the name mean?
Liu Yan: Xindanwei literally translates as "New Work Unit". For people like myself who were born in the 70s, we probably have a stronger feeling for the term "dan wei". I grew up in such an environment, where my parents both worked for national owned companies. These were places with tens of thousands of staff, and it was not just a place of work, but a small city, a family. All my friends’ parents were working for the same company too. The buildings were built during the Soviet era; there was no sense of a private life with everyone’s rooms connected to one another. So as a child I have fond memories of living with everyone in the whole building. Nowadays there doesn’t seem to be the same essence of community, particularly for young people who may lose themselves in videogames after school. Part of our thinking behind a co-working space was to allow for young people in China to have a stage to be inspired, as so many of them are disconnected. So we’re trying to create a “dan wei” but for the new generations.

Josh Atkin: Which kind of industries do you tend to attract the most?
Liu Yan: Our presentations state that we’re open to everyone, but in reality that’s simply not possible! There are certain fields that we attract over others and those that do come here can sense that we’re not just another space, but a unique environment to work within. One of our longest serving clients is Tank magazine and we also attract a lot of tech start-ups. So our main clientele are largely from the creative and technology industries.
Josh Atkin: What do you think has contributed more to the concept of communal working: the recession or social media?
Liu Yan: The concept of sharing things and moving offline from a virtual community is a global trend right now. In this world we are become increasingly short on resource and time so what is the best way to combat this? I think it’s to share. By share I don’t just mean facilities and office spaces, but also sharing knowledge. Life is so limited so people have become more open to sharing ideas and knowledge with one another in order to achieve something greater and more efficient.
Josh Atkin: What kind of events can we expect to take place at Xindanwei?
Liu Yan: Traditionally, our events had focused on new media, as that was where our background and interests lay, but we realised that what we found interesting was not necessarily what others wanted to engage in, so our events have subsequently grown. We now have a system whereby anyone can stage an event for free, with those wishing to attend paying a fee to do so, but they do get coffee and tea! As a result of this a whole range of events have opened up which we promote through our own network to increase reach.

Josh Atkin: What do you like about living in Shanghai and how do you feel about its rapid development?
Liu Yan: A lot of people asked me why I didn’t open Xindanwei in Beijing as they felt it suited the model well, and I tell them Shanghai isn’t a city I chose, but a city that chose me! I think Shanghai is a no nonsense city, and whatever concept you develop here you have to prove it works commercially. So it’s not just about having big ideas, but it’s how you make them work. I think there is still enough room in Shanghai to test out new ideas, but because the city is expensive you have to be practical in many, many ways. It’s a good city to start something new and creative, and it is also a great international hub for people keen on doing business.
Josh Atkin: Is there a place in Shanghai that’s special to you that you'd care to share with us?
Liu Yan: My own home! I rarely have any leisure time because of my work; I also have two kids so after work it’s a pretty good place to be! Elsewhere, I discovered a glass museum in the middle of nowhere recently. It was a huge experiment to do with industrial glass left behind by an old factory and it was a really brave and engaging experience. Finally, Xin Che Jian, the hacker community in Shanghai is something really important to me.
Josh Atkin: If you could sum up being a business leader in Shanghai in one word in Chinese what would it be and why?
Liu Yan: That would be 敢 or gǎn which means courage or daring to do things!

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