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The mega-city no one has heard of

Hanzhong, pop 4 million, seeks to carve out an identity among China's metropolises and shrug off its relative anonymity.

Last updated: 10 Jan 2014 00:39
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Despite increasing urbanisation, many large cities in China remain relatively unknown [GALLO/GETTY]

Hanzhong, China - With four million people, Hanzhong's population is the rough equivalent of Los Angeles yet outside of China, almost no one has heard of it. 

Even within the world's most populous country, the city is hardly well-known, its existence usually qualified with the sentence: "It's a few hours away from Xian." 

The Shaanxi province city is not alone in its anonymity. In a country of 1.3 billion people, urbanisation for its own sake is enough of a goal to pull citizens to the centres. China has more than 40 cities with populations exceeding two million people, and even ones of five million can be little known in larger metropolises such as Beijing.

Hanzhong is a quintessential anonymous Chinese city of sorts - undeniably big, but totally obscure to anyone who doesn't live nearby.

We have the aircraft, food and beverage, and chemical industries, but it's very slow [here] compared to other cities.

- Zhai Xiaole , Hanzhong official

Just once in recent memory did Hanzhong reach the international community: in 2010 a series of tragic knife attacks in various elementary schools swept through China, one of them occurring in Hanzhong's outskirts; a man armed with a cleaver killed a teacher and seven students.

Much mourning and analysis followed, whereupon Hanzhong and the other unfortunate municipalities were all deemed conspicuously unexceptional.

Off the charts

Zhai Xiaole is all too familiar with the city's lack of presence. As Hanzhong's head of foreign affairs, his job is to get business and tourism into Hanzhong. 

Chinese people tend to fall into one of two schools of thought: you either believe that a place is developing too quickly, or too slowly. Zhai clearly falls into the latter, surely influenced by his years spent in Shanghai.

"We have the aircraft, food and beverage, and chemical industries," he began, before concluding, "but it'very slow [here] compared to other cities."

He almost begrudges Hanzhong's obligation to supplement Beijing's water supply.

"This area is prohibited from building more polluting industries, so we cannot develop other big industries," he said with a shrug. "We have to protect the natural environment, but we also need international exchange."

By Chinese standards, a population of four million is hardly noteworthy, and the growing industries Hanzhong is focused on - aircraft and machinery manufacturing - have not yet resulted in much cosmopolitan flair. International presence is most apparent in a few stores emblazoned with Apple logos (authorized or not) and two KFCs. McDonald's or Starbucks? Zero. 

In China's "midsize" cities, the lust for all things Western is less palpable than in Shanghai or Beijing, but it exists nonetheless.

Pricey pints

He Jianghai is the owner of Starry, a newly-opened European style bar serving mainly German and Belgian beers.

"Western culture is the mainstream culture at the moment, whether you admit it or not," he yelled over the din of his tipsy patrons. "Young people here are willing to accept new things and new cultures."

Beer prices as high $13 a pint can't dissuade the crowds from He's bar. Taking into account that a standard Chinese beer - weak but totally drinkable - costs under 50 cents, his gamble is clearly paying off.

At 11:45pm, Starry's peak hours have passed. But at Hanzhong's hottest club, Baba, things are just getting started in a scene that is becoming a Chinese standard. The dance floor is covered with tables, fruit and bottles of Chivas adorning each one. The cheapest thing available is Carlsberg beer - which He insists is fake - at $8 a pop.

Sveta Romenko is a Ukrainian doing a stint in Hanzhong, dancing under the club strobes.

"The music here was played in my own country in 2007," she complained. "Six years ago!"

Hanzhong has other things to offer, of course. It has generously been named one of "China's Best Tourism Cities". Unfortunately, a whopping 280 cities had already beat Hanzhong to the punch. But in a country as big as China, even being the 281st honoree of a criteria-less contest still implies that Hanzhong has something to offer.

The music here was played in my own country in 2007 - six years ago!

Sveta Romenko , Ukrainian dancer

Back as far as the 2nd century, this dusty city was once ruled by a Taoist sect impressively named Way of the Celestial Masters. After murdering his own compatriot, Zhang Lu became a first-rate warlord who magnanimously ruled the people once the killing was done. Today, a Qing Dynasty temple reconstruction pays respects to the days of the Celestial Masters.

Inventor of paper?

Also, virtually every Chinese city has given rise to one or more "famous" individuals. Hanzhong is where the man credited as the inventor of paper had a temple and is now buried. Actually, Cai Lun didn't invent paper at all, but he did refine the process of making it.

Another Hanzhong notable is the crested ibis. Once believed to be completely extinct, seven of the birds were discovered in Shaanxi province.

Today, in a specialised breeding centre, dozens of the birds can be seen flapping slow circles inside of a large netted enclosure. A sign outside proudly announces that they are indeed still "The Most Endangered Bird in the World."

Well-educated people such as Zhai understand all too well what potentials the city has. Like a proper administrator, he has yearning recollections of Shanghai'urban planning, design and management. Yet he maintains his fondness for Hanzhong, its history and its people.

Locals glorify their homegrown teas and a drinking culture that encourages drunkenness as if these things were unique to the city.

In their eyes, Hanzhong is as good an example as any of a developing China. It is a city where standards of living are indeed increasing year by year.

Business is booming, real estate is strong, and the population continues to grow. Incredibly, four million Hanzhongers still lack a commercial airport, a trend seen in more than a few similar-sized cities across the country. 

But getting one is considered to be an eventuality, one that will bring Hanzhong's gifts that much closer to distant provinces and the continents beyond.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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