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The Return: a Chinese-Italian couple’s mountain utopia

By Kou Jie (People's Daily Online)    18:11, September 10, 2020

The guest house is the couple’s mountain utopia. (Photo provided to People's Daily Online)

Surrounded by lush mountains and limpid creeks, a small guesthouse glows under the setting sun. Through its glass windows, the sky is flushed in vivid crimson, from which verdant forests roll away in varying tones of emerald. It is August, and the air is warm and fresh, while woodsmoke and lavender exquisitely mingle with the subtle odors of delicate food.

The Hanshe Huitang guesthouse is always crowded in the evenings. It’s hard to find a spot where you can escape the eyes of those within, while the owner of the house and his family extend their arms of hospitality to the influx of visitors.

“Guests here can escape the hustle and bustle of city life, and feel their lungs fill with the lush scenery. I have always wanted to build a utopia in my hometown, and now my dream has come true,” said Huang Jing, owner of the guesthouse.

In 2018, after living in Italy for most of their lives, Huang and his wife Liu Yan decided to come back to Wencheng county in Wenzhou city, east China’s Zhejiang Province, in the hope of establishing their career at home. In line with the local authorities’ development strategies for promoting ecotourism, the couple set up the Hanshe Huitang guesthouse. Its name literally means “return to my humble home.”

“More and more overseas Chinese, especially young people like us, are deciding to come back home and start their careers here. I’ve never regretted my decision to come back, and what I have now is what I have always been looking for,” said Huang.

A path back home

The couple came back to Wenzhou in 2018, leaving their business and life in Italy behind. (People’s Daily Online/Zhao Chen)

For decades, Wenzhou has been famous for its people going overseas to seek prosperity. An old saying explains the reason: Wenzhou is 7/10 mountains, 1/10 water, and 2/10 farmland. Due to its cultural and geographical remoteness and its lack of natural resources, locals have always been driven to find new opportunities far beyond the sea. There are almost 690,000 Wenzhou people scattered around 130 countries, and many have never returned.

The situation began to change decades ago when China’s swift economic development caught the world’s attention. Wenzhou businessmen abroad are now leaving their overseas fortunes behind, and coming back home to find new opportunities. Huang is one of them.

“Living in Rome for decades, I could hardly feel any changes, partly because the city is a historical heritage, but mainly because Italy now lacks momentum for development. China, on the other hand, is changing day by day. My hometown is totally different from what it was four years ago when I first came back, and this is unbelievable,” said Huang.

Liu has a slightly different reason for coming back home. Unlike her husband, who went to Italy as an adult, Liu and her family moved to Italy when she was still a student. Years of living overseas has enabled her to speak fluent Italian, but she never felt any sense of belonging in a foreign land.

“The first years when I was in Italy, the locals were generally friendly and nice to foreigners. The culture shock and the language barrier weren’t the most difficult things to deal with. It was the feeling of not belonging anywhere,” said Liu.

With Italy suffering an economic downturn in recent years, life for Chinese-Italians became even harder. Liu’s younger sister was bullied by her Italian classmates simply because she could not speak perfect Italian, while Liu and her family also faced discrimination when doing business with the locals.

“There was one time I went to a market in Rome to rent a stall, but the owners rejected my application, saying that they wouldn’t rent anything to a Chinese like me, even if I had been living here for most of my life,” said Liu.

The guest house has now become a calling card for local ecotourism. (Photo provided to People's Daily Online)

Homesickness and an urge to find new business opportunities prompted the couple to visit their hometown in 2016, when Huang realised that his ancestral house could be transformed into a boutique guesthouse, in line with the local development strategy of promoting ecotourism.

Zhu Chen, an official from the local publicity department, noted that local authorities have been rolling out favorable policies to attract overseas Chinese like Huang to come home and contribute to local economic development, holding forums to introduce business opportunities to overseas Chinese, as well as launching summer camps and hometown museums for their children to learn the local dialect and culture.

“Ever since I came back, the local authorities have provided us with as much assistance as they could. They have even held study groups for overseas Chinese like us so that we can get familiar with investment policies, and also promote our brands to the public,” said Huang.

Ecotourism has now become a pillar of the local economy, attracting many overseas Chinese to come back for business opportunities. (Photo provided to People's Daily Online)

Due to the favorable policies and government support, since 2015, over 120 guesthouses have been established in Wencheng, many owned by overseas Chinese. Wenzhou’s tourism revenue reached 133.4 billion yuan in 2019, with an annual growth rate of 18.8 percent, receiving over 119 million visitors from around the world.

“My friends took an unfavourable view of my decision to come back. But now, all my family members have returned from Rome to Wenzhou, and I’ve sold off our business in Italy, while those who mocked my decision are now also coming back,” said Huang.

“Once the hometown of the largest number of overseas Chinese, Wenzhou is now attracting talents to come back and start their lives and careers at home,” he added.

Modern version of the Wenzhou spirit

The bar at the guesthouse is made out of discarded materials from Huang’s ancestral house. (Photo provided to People's Daily Online)

Members of the old generation of Wenzhou businessmen are famous for their independence, hardworking spirit, self-reliance and business-oriented character, but young Wenzhounese like Huang have brought new features to this spirit.

Creativity and innovation are the couple’s secrets to success. The guesthouse’s decorative wooden walls are made from over 2,000 panels from the demolished ancestral house, while the stone jars used to make pickles have been converted into pot plants. Huang has designed a number of creative products, such as puzzles depicting the guesthouse’s beautiful views, hiring bands to perform beside the swimming pool, and throwing themed parties catering to the guests’ needs. Liu has made full use of her skills as a cook, designing dishes and beverages combining Chinese and European flavors, such as plum and kiwi wine, Chinese yam cappuccino and Chinese mocha tiramisu.

Creative products like guesthouse puzzles have become a hit with visitors. (Photo provided to People's Daily Online)

“For modern Wenzhou businessmen, courage and hard work are not enough to realize your business dream. You need to be creative, adding new ideas to your business blueprint. There are several guesthouses around mine, but I never worry about competition, because our unique and creative features help us go even further,” said Huang.

The couple have also started cooperating with local farmers, selling their products through their customers. According to Huang, he has helped famers from nearby villages sell 2,500 kilograms of yam and stick rice, giving them an opportunity to increase their incomes.

“In the modern era, cooperation and mutual understanding are also important for business. I think that’s what the modern Wenzhou spirit is all about,” he added. 

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(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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