Visitors to China are often struck by two fundamental things: on one hand, the profound depth and richness of history and tradition in China, on the other, the rush to grow and modernize that is changing not only China but increasingly changing the world. Here, David Shi examines how Hangzhou, the ancient city long beloved of poets, painters and sages, has sought a balance between honoring thousands of years of tradition and driving fast-paced economic growth. From West Lake to the headquarters of Internet success story Alibaba, David considers how the city's wealth relates to its famed beauty. >>>
Hangzhou, capital of today's province of Zhejiang, has a history of over 2,000 years and is easily one of China's most scenic cities. Historically, Hangzhou has not only served as the Southern Song capital from 1123-1276, but has been a key cultural center famous for art, poetry, Buddhism and tea since the early 7th century when the Grand Canal linked it to directly to distant Beijing.
Today, visit Hangzhou and you'll see evidence of ancient beauty and culture all around. Standing on the shores of West Lake, it can be hard to believe that Hangzhou also hosts buzzing factories and business centers. Curious about the city's split personality, I joined a group of fellow NYU Stern Business students on a weekend trip, eager to experience these two sides of Hangzhou for myself....
What to do in Hangzhou: The pleasures of West Lake & Leifeng Pagoda
In my free time, we explored some the city's most famous sights. The natural first stop is the famous Xihu, or West Lake, in the heart of the city. The lake and its surroundings have inspired countless artists and poets throughout history to reflect its beauty in their works.
We decided to bike around the entire lake. This proved not to be the best idea, considering the crowds we had to dodge and traffic, with which we had many a close call.
However, the lake indeed is gorgeous, and we cycled passed many pagodas, bridges, and traditional buildings. None of these intrude on their surroundings; if anything, they enhance the natural beauty of the area. The lake is clean enough for the sizable fish living in its waters to be considered a delicacy.
In the middle of our ride, we were able to climb the famous Leifeng Pagoda. The tower itself is not incredibly high, but the views, both inside and outside, were simply amazing.
Inside, there were various artistic displays of old Hangzhou in artworks from hundreds of years ago.
Outside, there was a great view of West Lake and surroundings. We weren’t able to make it by sunset, but we caught the twilight view (which should not be underestimated at all).
What to do in Hangzhou: The business of making things. And selling them. Lots of them
Aside from the famous views and sites around Hangzhou, we also visited several factories and businesses around the city.
Most notable was the factory of Wahaha, the famous drink company that supplies China with bottled water, Future Cola (Chinese Coke), iced coffee drinks, caffeine-free Kids Cola and more.
Known throughout China, Wahaha was founded in Hangzhou and maintains its headquarters there. We viewed displays that presented the history of the company and its products, the areas they serve, and their future plans along with a presentation introducing the company.
Finally, we viewed the factory area that produces the molds for the bottles. I've known Wahaha since I was very young thanks to fairly frequent visits to China, but had never realized they were based in Hangzhou, and it was fascinating to learn something about how they run their business.
We were also able to check out the main office of Alibaba, also located in Hangzhou. Not many people in China have heard of Alibaba, but plenty have heard of the website known as Taobao, which effectively serves as a Chinese Ebay where individuals and companies buy and sell products online, sometimes by auction.
Alibaba is also very active in other sectors, including B2B (business to business) dealings in which companies sell large quantities of materials to other companies who then furnish them into final products. They also have a branch in Internet security along with other online services. We were fortunate enough to meet the vice president of Alibaba (a friend of our professor, actually), who gave us an enlightening presentation on the company in the VIP room (with very futuristic screens) and presented us with much insight into entrepreneurship in China.
Although we weren’t able to see that much in terms of the actual working of factories and business, these two visits certainly showed us that Hangzhou, despite its vaunted natural scenery and arts, is an integral part of China's business and factory operations. Entrepreneurs find the city to be a great place for a start ups, and innovative service companies like Alibaba are thriving alongside more traditional industrial and manufacturing enterprises.
The wealth that tourists see in Hangzhou (dealerships for Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and numerous outlets for countless luxury designer brands) is a result of this entrepreneurial spirit, one that has helped create much of the famed beauty of the city. We were lucky enough to have a look at the wealth-generating machinery of its business sector, learning in the factory something about the relationship between Hangzhou's commercial power—past and present—and its beauty.