I WAS in a glitzy auto showroom in Luqiao, one of the main city zones of Taizhou, admiring an Audi open-top, a sports car similar to that Princess Diana used to drive to her gym in London before her death, except that this baby was the latest model.
Showing me around the showroom in the Fanglin Auto City, a local one-stop car mart, was a young man in his mid-30s who claimed to be a farmer, more likely a farmer-turned-salesman.
“An Audi sports car?” I was a bit surprised as I felt the rich texture of the leather.
“How many have you sold?”
I mean how many locals can afford such luxury in an obscure little city, considering that hardly a generation ago, everyone, almost everyone, was a farmer just surviving.
“What’s so surprising?” my host shot back. “Someone has even sold a Bentley that cost 3.8 million yuan.”
I kept my silence and tried hard to digest those words. I found it amusing trying to imagine a farmer driving a Bentley along a dirt path with dogs and chicken running helter-skelter.
But then the proud owner could be a successful businessman who made it big under the market economy. After all, Luqiao, with a small population of 421,000 people, is full of nouveau riche.
I must remind myself that Luqiao is something like the Detroit of China, a home-grown car manufacturing base, and also a leading industrial and commercial hub with the most number of private enterprises.
Let me put it in perspective.
I was invited to make a study tour of Haining and Taizhou, two thriving cities, in the coastal province of Zhejiang. Both are now experiencing the typhoon season and have suffered considerable damage.
When we were there, Taizon and the city zones had been spruced up after the last typhoon, leaving no trace of the damage except for one or two torn billboards.
Taizhou has 88,000 industrial enterprises, 13 leading brands in China and 48 of its products are market leaders in this country. But Taizhou is unique in China as almost all the businesses are private enterprises.
It is a leading manufacturing base for electrical appliances, machines, die and plastics, metalwork, cars and car components as well as accessories.
Luqiao hosts the home-grown Geely, Jiao and Yongyuan auto groups which produced 124,500 cars last year.
If Luqiao has such a booming car making business, it is not the least surprising that the farmers and village authorities also want a share of the big pie. So they pooled their resources and invested a total of 185 million yuan (RM92.5mil) to set up the Fanglin Auto City in 2003.
So, here I was being taken on a guided tour of the massive car mart with glitzy showrooms selling both expensive and inexpensive cars, shops doing testing and repairing and shops selling spare-parts, accessories and electrical appliances. There are also shops providing car-financing services.
And they sold nearly 10,000 cars in the first half of this year – not bad for an auto centre 40% owned, and largely managed, by people from a farming background.
I was told that the per capita income of Luqiao is US$4,487, which is way above the average in China.
And I was also told that in Luqiao, those a little well-off would give their son a fully furnished apartment when he got married while the bride’s family would give the new couple a car and a cheque as dowry.
Now if you are dashing off to check where Luqiao is, don’t bother. The place is so obscure that it does not even qualify to be placed on the map of China.
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