Shoe capital steps into the future
Just 12 months ago, the railway station in Jinjiang, Fujian province, part of the mainland's new high-speed rail network, was an untidy construction site.
On April 26, when the inaugural high-speed train from Xiamen in the south to Fuzhou in the north passed through Jinjiang, the station was still far from completed, with its unpaved entrance area, stationary escalators and blank television information panels.
But every day the train service runs, it is weaving Jinjiang - the country's shoe capital - closer into the economic fabric of the rest of the province. The city is the production base for 40 per cent of the nation's sports shoes - or 20 per cent of the world's total.
The 250 km/h rail service has cut the journey time between Jinjiang and Xiamen to only 30 minutes whereas before it took one-and-a-half hours by road; and it is only an hour to Fuzhou, previously a two-and-half-hour road trip away.
Adding to the Jinjiang's makeover was the opening of its first international hotel in March - Hong Kong conglomerate Wharf Group's 296-room Marco Polo Hotel.
'Jinjiang will not be the same again,' said Liao Jindui, the boss of the city's largest property developer, Sunlight Group.
'It is a crouching tiger.'
In the past two decades, Liao has led Sunlight in urbanising the backward village city by turning paddy fields into commercial and residential towers and thoroughfares and importing global brands such as KFC, McDonald's and Marco Polo.
The group's central role in the development of the city is reflected in some of its street names - Sunlight Road and Sunlight East Road.
Sunlight and local partners are pressing ahead with a three-year 1 billion yuan (HK$1.14 billion) development of a new business district over a gross floor area of 2.5 million square feet on Sunlight East Road.
The plan envisages tearing down hundreds of homes in low-rise residential blocks opposite the Marco Polo Hotel to build residential and office skyscrapers and an upmarket shopping centre.
Among the largest corporate players in the city is Anta Footwear, with a market capitalisation of about HK$31 billion, and 361 Degrees International, with a capitalisation of about HK$11.2 billion. Hengan International Group, the mainland's largest maker of sanitary napkins and baby diapers, is valued at HK$66 billion.
Some 19 companies operating in the city are listed on the stock exchanges of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Six more are scheduled to go public this year, according to the Jinjiang municipal government.
The wealth of the city's two million residents may not be as conspicuous as in other new-rich mainland cities whose roads are showrooms for the best of European cars.
But throwing massive, lavish banquets is the preferred means to display affluence in Jinjiang.
'The larger the number of guests at a banquet, the more 'face' the hosts have,' Liao said. 'If the hosts don't have enough folks and friends to attend, they will invite people they don't even know to fill the tables.'
The banquet culture generated about 200 million yuan in revenue to Sunlight's four hotels in Jinjiang last year.
However, such wealth has come at a cost.
The manufacturing sector that catapulted Jinjiang into the top revenue-earning position in Fuzhou over the past two decades has left the city with the unwelcome label as one of the eight most polluted centres on the mainland, and indeed the world.
Jinjiang and Sanming were two Fujian cities the Ministry of Environmental Protection blacklisted for poor management of sewage treatment and sulphur emissions last summer.
The central government is making sustainable development a target, urging companies to climb the value chain and the technology ladder. Polluting labour-intensive factories may be forced to close or to migrate to inland provinces if they fail to follow that directive, economists warned.