When Mao Siping, a former rice farmer in Shaoshan in Hunan province, decided to try his luck at a local souvenir market touting memorabilia of the late Chairman Mao Zedong to tourists 20 years ago, he said at best he made 10,000 yuan (HK$12,600) a year.
Mao, who operates a 20-room family hotel from his own four-storey home in Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao, said he and his wife could now easily earn 200,000 yuan a year.
"We could've made much more if I were as hardworking as others and if I spent less time on mahjong and karaoke,'' he said.
"It's something I could never have imagined 20 years ago."
The hotelier's life shows how Shaoshan has transformed itself from a backwater rural town to a bustling centre of "red tourism", with Mao's legacy as its trump card.
A native of Shaoshan and a distant relative of Mao Zedong, Siping said the town was no longer a place which could only be accessed by dirt roads, but it still had clean air and beautiful scenery. "I suppose that we couldn't have all if it weren't Chairman Mao,'' he said
Mao Zedong was born to a rural family in Shaoshan on December 26, 1893, and the small town has undergone a huge revamp to prepare for celebration of the 120th anniversary of his birth throughout the mainland on Thursday.
The Xiangtan municipal government, which administers Shaoshan, has spent more than 1.9 billion yuan available on a number of projects for the celebrations, including street performances, clean-ups at tourist attractions and upgrading infrastructure in the area.
In Mao Zedong Square, at the heart of Shaoshan, workers could be seen in recent days working day and night fixing pavements.
The old building at the Shaoshan Mao Zedong Memorial Museum has been closed for more than a year for a massive upgrade, but the section housing Mao's personal belongings remains open for the celebrations.
Other sites gearing up for an influx of pilgrims from around the country, include the Shaoshan Hotel, where the former leader stayed during a home visit in June 1959.
The authorities in Shaoshan have big plans for the future, including shopping malls, hotels and cinemas to be built on a 100-hectare site. The complex, which will cost five billion yuan in total, will be built in three phases in the next three to five years.
Official statistics show that the number of tourists to Shaoshan increased from eight million last year to 10 million in the first eleven months of this year.
The number is expected to rise even further this month as Mao's birthday celebrations get fully under way.
Outside the former home of Mao, hundreds of tourists queued in lines for a glimpse of the old mudbrick farmhouse where his family lived before he left in 1910.
Over the past few days, large numbers of tourists have also flocked to Mao Zedong Square in the centre of Shaoshan, queueing in the freezing cold for their turn to lay bouquets in front of a giant bronze statute of the former Communist Party leader.
For many it seemed almost a religious as well as a political act. The elderly escorted by their children came to pay tribute to Mao and to pray for longer life, while parents clutching their babies bowed in front of the statute for good health and good luck for their children.
Chimeg, a cattle farmer from Siziwang in Inner Mongolia, said she came to Shaoshan with her husband and daughter to fulfil a childhood dream of visiting Mao's hometown.
The tourist, who chose to stay in Shaoshan for two days and one night, said she would love to see more attractions as long as they were related to the life of the former leader.
"He's simply the greatest," she said. "That's how I feel about him."