by Ernie Diaz
“Wenzhou? You mean where West Lake is?”
“No. That’s Hangzhou.”
“Oh. You mean the southern industrial metropolis?”
“Nope. That’s Guangzhou.”
With so many zhous [cities] dotting China’s eastern seaboard, an expat might easily overlook Wenzhou, wen meaning “mild, pleasant”. Nothing about Wenzhou stands out to make it a must-see on a whirlwind tour of China. Nonetheless, it has much to offer the expat bent on taking advantage of China’s economic ascendancy.
Born to do Business
Never mind its status as an ancient center for pottery, or its claim to being the Alunite Capital of the World. The most important resource of any land is its people, and in this aspect Wenzhou stands out as China’s capital city of entrepreneurs, in a country where buying and selling are genetically embedded skills. No wonder that Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao, recommended the city to fervent revolutionaries seeking true capitalists to root out.
The people of Wenzhou pride themselves on their business prowess, but are canny enough to crow about it in their peculiar native dialect, Wenzhouhua, eight-toned and incomprehensible to Chinese a hundred kilometers outside Wenzhou’s environs. It’s the legacy of an ancient port city, the only one serving Southern Zhejiang’s mountainous interior.Commercial creativity and vitality are the result. A hugely disproportionate number of Chinese found in other countries, engaged in F&B or SME, hail from Wenzhou.
Domestic Dominance, Growing Global Reach
This will to trade power is evident in its modern history, as well. Wenzhou, not Shanghai or Guangzhou, first launched its market economy after the Great Opening Up, and boasts the largest, most vital private economy of any city in China. The essence of the Wenzhou model stresses small-scale manufacture, family owned, with further emphasis on efficient distribution. A high degree of specialization and division of labor instilled thriving supportive industries. A predilection for trade associations make for explosive industrial growth and thriving commerce. The result: over a quarter million individually-owned industrial/commercial units, and some 150, 000 private enterprises, respectable indeed for this city of two million, eight million prefecture-wide.
Of course, it is the land itself, or rather the sea, that nurtured these characteristics in the Wenzhou ren.339 kilometers of rich coastline create a rich crop of marine resources, but even more importantly give Wenzhou a mighty port, currently operating 33 berths of different sizes, four in the 100,000 ton class.
So why hasn’t Wenzhou developed the international shipping cache of a Shanghai? Its early dominance as a light manufacturer led the city to focus on domestic markets, accounting for hefty percentages of China’s lighters, glasses, mechanical pencils, and footwear. Agricultural commodities such as tea, cotton, and oranges are robustly traded in some 450 wholesale commodity markets.
But Wenzhou is by no means resting on its domestic business laurels, instead working smart to transition into a successful global economy. A development zone focusing on IT and electronics, as well as ongoing infrastructure investment, promise to increase FDI from the US $1 billion contracted in 2006, contributing to the city’s continuing double-digit economic growth.
A Sort of Life
So you’re in Wenzhou for the foreseeable short-term, looking to corner Eastern Toronto’s disposable lighter market. The sun sets on a business day, and the moon finds you at the Victoria Grand Hotel’s polished, subdued bar, knocking back watery Scotch for 80 RMB a pop. The time-honored stranger stroll will inevitably lead you down to Xialupu Residential Community and Wang Jiang Road, the most popular night-time venues.
Here you will find the Blueshell Bar [13 Wendi Beixian], the first foreign bar in Wenzhou. It’s small, friendly, and unpretentious. For all its charms, it lacks live music, which is provided at Millers bar close by. For burgers, tacos, fries, and other “real food” your belly’s grumbling for, try La Luna Bar & Grill [#236 Shuan Long Lu, 134 548 412 80]. There are at least a dozen shell-shocked full-time expats and/or backpackers there on any given night. Down on Ren Min Road sits Bourbon Street Bar, a trap, and the pricey Moulin Rouge Bar in Lucheng District, where there is much more native display of wealth than international camaraderie. Such isyour foreign community, in a nutshell.
But there’s always the Oujiang River hard by, and a night time cruise from the An Lan Wharf puts the city in a beautiful perspective. The city’s many parks diverge but little from the Chinese standard, save for the preponderance of public sports facilities. Chinese families linger along the city’s many wharves, or nibble away the night at Wu Ma Street’s night-snack market.
According to the Wenzhou’s government website , “the city boasts wonderful landscapes with numerous grotesque mountains and graceful waters”. When the grace and grotesquery no longer suffice, an expat heads for Jiangxinyu Island , a vast park that culminates in an obligatory ancient temple, in this case the eponymous Jiangxin temple. The pristine Nanji Islands Marine Nature Reserve appeals to the Jacques Cousteau in all of us, and a trip to Yandang Mountain involves enough of the rigors of Chinese countryside travel to allay the desire for more.
When second-tier reality demands a break, Yongqiang Airport is located about 24 kilometers away from the city in Longwan District and has over 180 scheduled flights to 65 of China’s largest cities, the ones with sushi bars, Walmarts, and other amenities you thought you could do without when you first arrived in the Middle Kingdom.