It used to be on Western maps as Hankow, an inland treaty port, and rallying point for European traders. Traces of their time can still be found on corner stones and archways and imported designs of buildings along the bund looking out from Hankou over the Yangtze. This was where Sun Yat-sen succeeded in getting Imperial forces in the Wuchang garrison to join his revolutionary cause, cracking the last resolve of the old regime.
Wuhan was created in 1950 in an amalgamation that brought quite distinct urban entities together – Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang. Today, the city is best known as a strategic communications hub in central China, as it positions itself as the country's optical electronics center for the 21st century.
Three years ago the city of some eight million was designated by the central government as the location for the so-called "Optics Valley of China" (OVC).
Situated within the landscaped scenery of Wuhan's East Lake High Technology Development Zone, the OVC has become a national center for the production and development of fiberoptic communications cable, optical receivers, transmitters, laser equipment and optoelectronic consumables (think, for example, of that optical mouse on your desktop).
By 2005, after four years of sustained growth, the OVC is forecast to reach a turnover of some RMB 60 billion (US$7.2 billion), said Wang Jizeng, Director of Investment Promotion for the East Lake zone.
"Already we are the number one manufacturing and research base for fiber cable in China," he said. "By next year we expect to be the fourth biggest manufacturer in the world."
It's a process that, Wang said, is helping to spearhead Wuhan's economic transformation. A century ago Wuhan was the first city in China to develop a modern heavy industrial presence. Following the 1949 revolution the pace of industrialization shifted up a gear with huge state-run iron and steel plants, many built with assistance from the Soviet Union, coming to dominate the city's economy and its skyline.
Today, while heavy industry remains an important part of Wuhan's lifeblood, China's program of economic reform and restructuring has meant that those plants that have survived are no longer the mass-employers they once were.
For many residents of Wuhan it has been a painful transition process, and faced with the specter of mass unemployment, as well as the prospect of losing key talent to other cities, Wuhan has had to reinvent itself.
Like scores of cities Wuhan has been eagerly courting the foreign investment dollar.
The problem, said William Li, local Chief Representative for the China Britain Business Council, is that Wuhan is like many cities in central China – it has vast supplies of well-educated labor of the same quality at a lower price than the big east coast cities, a rapidly improving infrastructure, and good transport connections to the rest of the country and the outside world.
"What Wuhan needed was something that differentiates it," said Li. "That's why, as well as the car industry, the authorities have put so much emphasis on optoelectronics – it's something to give Wuhan an edge."
As a result the growth of the OVC has become a central part of the transformation of Wuhan's economic and industrial base, attracting several big names in the communications world – such as NEC, Siemens and Philips – to invest in the city.
To date the biggest player is Chinese firm Fiberhome, a supplier of optical fiber cable to China's domestic telecoms sector, which employs more than 5,000 people and last year saw sales of over RMB 3 billion.
The OVC takes as its model the Arizona Optics Valley, located outside the city of Tucson in the western USA. Like the Arizona valley, the Wuhan OVC follows the concept of a planned cluster – an integrated economic community designed to work together for the benefit of all its components. A key foundation for the Wuhan cluster has been the city's established and still growing academic base.
For example, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications No 54 Research Institute has been China's leading optical fiber research center for several years. In 1982 it pioneered the development of optical communications in China with the launch of the country's first 8 Mbps (megabits per second) optical communication line – an event that has led Wuhan to be labeled the "cradle" of China's optical communications industry.
Expanding on that talent, in 2000 the Central China Science and Technology University founded the city's Optical Electronics and Information Institute, further strengthening Wuhan's research base.
"It was these rich intellectual resources that led the central government to back the growth of high tech industry here," said the East Lake Zone's Wang Jizeng.
According to Wang, the OVC boasts some 18 universities and 56 research institutes staffed by around 200,000 highly educated experts, more than a third of whom are actively engaged in the research and industrial application of optoelectronic technology.
Of those personnel, 10 have achieved the title of ?Academican,? he said, the highest level of achievement recognized by the Chinese Academy of Science, and giving Wuhan one of the highest concentrations of such talent in the country.
"By working in the same location, those companies that have set up in Wuhan have been able to enjoy advantages of the latest high technology research with a good supply of highly skilled qualified personnel," said Wang.
"We are also actively looking overseas for opportunities to combine our own resources with those of foreign partners.?
Meanwhile, as the OVC grows, it has become a powerful driver of the Wuhan economy.
"For further growth of the city we need to attract new service sector industries to come here, like accountants, lawyers, and logistics specialists, and the needs of the optoelectronics industry OVC will help us do that," said Zheng Xin Sui, Chief of the Wuhan General Chamber of Commerce.
"With those in place, supported by our education facilities and growing international cooperation, I have no doubt that Wuhan will emerge as one of the biggest high technology cities in the world."