It may be time to start hunting for Alibaba wannabes in places like this
Recently, I visited my Fujian ancestral village in China again - a quaint place with stone-walled houses and red-tiered rooftops now just a 40-minute drive from the coastal city of Xiamen.
It had been four years since I last visited, and the scale of the transformation that had taken place took my breath away.
As my taxi sped through the 10-lane expressway leading to the village, I was greeted with high-rise condos and giant malls that had sprouted since my last visit.
Even the ancient village itself had been spruced up. The county government spent 100 million yuan (S$20 million) refurbishing the old houses and turning the surroundings into a huge park, complete with pink cherry blossom trees and jogging trails.
The 200-year-old ancestral house where my father spent his childhood has been earmarked for conservation and turned into an exhibition hall for aspiring artists to display their paintings.
Not far from the village, a giant technological park is coming up - a magnet for young entrepreneurs who want to turn their ideas into profitable businesses.
My first thought as I surveyed these developments was that it wasn't China - at least not the China many of us imagine, used as we are to tales of grimy smog-filled cities.
Indeed, the fresh air, big parks, glitzy malls and upmarket condos surrounding the village reminded me of the ultra-modern suburbs of First World cities such as Tokyo and Paris - the kind of place that highly educated and well-paid white-collar workers would call home.
My cousin Goh Kah Hock, who proudly showed me and my friend Lawrence Chang around, has clearly prospered along with the transforming village. He gave us a lift in his Range Rover to a high-speed train station that was a 10-minute drive away as we made our way to our next stop, Fuzhou.
Two decades ago, when I first visited, his family was so poor that their house didn't have even the basic modern necessities we take for granted - potable water and electricity - and the road leading to the village was like a mud-track.
Kah Hock said I had no excuse not to visit more often now that all this modern infrastructure is in place. "The airport is 15 minutes away and Tigerair flies in from Singapore. Maybe, it is time for you to buy a house here," he said.
The possibility of buying a house there has been on my mind since I returned to Singapore. I find myself sufficiently tempted to want to go back to take another look.
Like Shenzhen, the giant metropolis that borders Hong Kong, Jinjiang - the county where my village is located - is well-known as a manufacturing hub, having captured a big chunk of the world's market for clothing and branded footwear.
And now, also like Shenzhen, it wants to move up the technological value chain, attracting young graduates inspired by the success of Internet firms such as Alibaba and Baidu to seek their fortunes in new ideas.
In a sense, Jinjiang is lucky. Most of its businesses are light industry, so there are no smoke-belching factories. There are other big selling points - new highways and high-speed train stations linking it to the rest of China, and an airport big enough to land an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737. These facilities enable the county and nearby Quanzhou city to connect with major financial centres such as Hong Kong and Singapore.
Too often, we read reports of China's quest to dominate sectors such as semiconductors and car batteries, by outspending everyone else and triggering a price collapse with the resulting oversupply. We also find ourselves bombarded by alarming analyses from market strategists who warn us that China is on the brink of economic collapse after creating a gigantic bubble in housing, infrastructure and manufacturing capacity. The decline in the value of the yuan and the depletion of the country's foreign reserves add to their angst.
But little has been written of the ingenuity of its entrepreneurs and the enormous amount of risk capital available to back its start-up firms. Despite what naysayers are prognosticating about China, the picture on the ground looks a lot more optimistic - at least from what I have observed of my ancestral village, where a vibrant high-tech hub is taking root.
In a world awash with abundant cheap capital, Jinjiang has opted to try to attract brain-power - lots of it - to make it the new growth driver.
So far, the strategy appears to be working. One big investor is China's richest man, Mr Wang Jianlin, whose Wanda Group has put up a five-star hotel with a giant mall in Quanzhou, a 30-minute drive away.
On my previous visit to the village four years ago, Kah Hock had taught me how to use an app called Weixin (better known as WeChat in English) - a popular free instant messaging system in China - on my iPhone in order to chat online with him.
On my return to Singapore, I had looked up WeChat's ownership and found it belonged to Hong Kong-listed Tencent Holdings. As the share price had jumped 56 per cent in the previous six months, I decided not to buy the stock until there was a price correction.
What a huge mistake that turned out to be. Tencent continued to go from strength to strength and grew fourfold in share price. Every time I tell people about this big missed investment opportunity of my life, I never fail to wonder if there are many more such gems waiting to be uncovered.
This time around, after seeing the village once more, I am wondering about the investment opportunities that might be tossed up as it develops.
As investors, we are regularly regaled with stories of successful American start-ups such as Google and Facebook. But it is relatively safe to bet that, in 10 years, the tech sector in Shenzhen and even Jinjiang will still be growing and morphing into mini-Silicon Valleys - and that they will have start-ups with the potential to become household names.
Already, in Shenzhen, home to Tencent, there are other established tech giants such as telecom gearmaker Huawei and electric carmaker BYD, in which billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has a 10 per cent stake.
Some alarmists will say that the growth trajectory adopted by these Chinese cities resembles far too much the approach taken by Singapore in trying to bring innovative, high-tech industries into its fold and that, if we are not careful, we might find them eating our lunch.
But I believe this is not a zero-sum game. China is Singapore's largest trading partner and, if it continues to thrive, we will be able to benefit from the spin-offs of its growth.
Too bad the Singapore stock market was scarred by a spate of accounting scandals involving Singapore-listed China firms some years back, and this has made many investors leery about investing in Chinese stocks.
Otherwise, this would be an excellent time to start hunting for Tencent or Alibaba wannabes in places such as Jinjiang to list here. No risk, no gain, some would say.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'The economic miracle taking shape in my Fujian ancestral village'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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