I was approaching the town of Quxian in the middle of the Sichuan basin, which is unusual as a Chinese place name in that it is one word – Qu. The town is Qu county seat, the county is Qu County – Quxian – and the local river is the river Qu. Most Chinese place names consist of two or even three words, and rarely four.
Some years ago, I was trying to write a China version of the song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," but eventually gave up trying to find a four-syllable Han Chinese place name that fit as a substitute for the city of the Golden Gate. I went with Urumqi – Wu-lu-mu-qi – instead. Try it, it runs off the tongue quite well.
It was early June. The Sichuan basin is one of the richest agricultural regions of China, and one of its oldest rice-growing centers. In fact, rice culture was probably already here before the Han Chinese arrived, conquering the states of Ba and Shu around the time of the Roman Empire.
The rice had been planted about a month before, and my eyes were bathed in the glorious, sensual, richly vibrant and peaceful color of paddy field green.
I love this color so much that I wrote a song about it, called "Green So Green." It’s one of a dozen tunes I have written in recent months based on my experiences during the walk across China. The album will be called Walking West and should be finished in another couple of months thanks to – or rather in spite of – the miracle of modern music software. Music programs such as Logic Pro provide so many options that it is amazing anything ever gets completed.
But back to the paddy fields. The plants are still young, which means you can see the water in which they sit, and there is still room for the ducks to take dips. Every paddy had a few ducks preening and drying off at poolside. The roads also featured ducks, a dozen or so crammed into cages suspended off the sides of motorbikes taking them to market. I hope they had a nice holiday.
I was nine kilometers from the town and the road headed obstinately north through former farmland in the process of being re-assigned to other purposes. Construction is something China now knows how to do, and as Oscar Wilde pointed out, nothing exceeds like excess. There were food-products factories being built, pavements being constructed, roads repaired and houses going up. The road finally headed west and then allowed me to cross the Qu river.
But before the river, and still in the semi-countryside, I was already being assailed by large advertisements for a housing development called East City Peninsula.
The ads promised international sophisticated living, a shopping area called Oxford Street and a very impressive bridge, modeled after Shanghai’s old Garden Bridge, stretching over the river to the west side, which is downtown Quxian. I passed it, a huge building site. It is the first development of its kind in this little town, with four or five towers each 20 or 30 floors in height, a whole new concept in property investment for the middle of nowhere.
I was interested in the prospects for this project in light of all the talk of property bubbles in various parts of China. Quxian town has a population, I would guess, of a couple of hundred thousand people, and the town center, like that of just about every other town in China, had been completely destroyed and redeveloped around the standard massive plaza.
One area off the plaza, the best location and somewhat away from the river, had street after street of new lower-level housing blocks into which the local residents and been resettled when their original homes were demolished. Plus a high-end karaoke joint, a block of quite high-end apartments and a hotel which claims four-star status, but which in Quxian terms rates seven. They even serve coffee at breakfast.
It was a prime location, and the development dated from a couple of years ago, so it would have caught the property wave well.
But what about East City Peninsula? It was outside the town, on the other side of the river, not a prime location, although it had a "view." I asked around, and the word was that all the apartments had been sold and there was even a second-hand market for them before they had been completed. Prices are in RMB3,000-3,800 per square meter range, which is dramatically lower than Beijing and Shanghai prices, and is considered by locals to be toppy but acceptable.
I asked several ordinary people if they would consider the apartments a good investment if they had the money, which they didn’t. They all shook their heads.
"The market won’t fall dramatically, but these prices are the top of the range," said a lady running a restaurant on the edge of the plaza. "There is no upside."
Prices, in the end and in the long haul, are a function of supply and demand. My guess is that there will be many more East City Peninsulas due to the pressure on the local governments to increase land- and property-related revenue flows, and the need of the property developers to "do another one" while passing on the risk to the state banks in the control of the local governments. Plus more Oxford Streets, Fifth Avenues and Avenues des Champs-Elysées shopping malls to feed consumerism. That will keep prices down.
So this might be the end of phase one of China’s middle-class property boom, stretching from 1995 to now. Phase two, I would bet, is unlikely to see significant price rises, although there may not be much of a fall. The question is whether there are any players who are going to try to push prices out of the current range. If they do, then the steely nature of the property bubble in China will be tested.
The long bridge into Quxian across the river was opened in 1986, but the north side was closed for repairs and the balustrades looked beancurd-like. I had to walk along the southern side, which meant I couldn’t get a really good photo from the bridge of the East City Peninsula development. But I saw the beginnings of the old-new bridge sprouting from either side of the mudflats.
The development looked well-placed among the green of the surviving agricultural activity, but I am sure that greenery will be developed out of existence before too long.
The town itself, by day, could best be described as gritty. At night, during the summer anyway, it was more attractive, particularly the area near the river, with small lively streets and a very active local restaurant scene. The new promenade along the river was packed with people taking the evening air.
I walked southward out of town along Highway 318 and stopped at a small store to buy some water. The young man behind the counter engaged me in conversation as the local ladies gathered round to listen. We soon had a full discussion going on the state of the town’s economy (good) and business in the little store (terrible).
"It’s a foreigner!" a boy shouted to his mother.
"My god!" I exclaimed, pointing at him and looking at her. "He’s Chinese!" Smiles all round.