Victorian-style buildings with red bricks and pointed roofs. Manicured green lawns. A white sign that says “Dachang Movie Town”.
A handful of stardust has been sprinkled over Dachang, a steel county 30km east of downtown Beijing, as a movie town with production studios, workshops and training centers slowly takes shape.
The county of about 120,000 residents has been designated a hub for cultural industries, to replace the polluting steel mills that had hitherto been the pillars of the local economy in Hebei province.
More than 70 local and international industry players have invested more than 10 billion yuan (S$2 billion, US$1.5 billion) in the movie town, local officials told The Straits Times during a visit last Sunday (Oct 22) organized as part of the recently concluded 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
The town aims to draw at least 200 companies by next year to form a media hub spanning all aspects of movie and TV production.
Veteran Chinese film director Jia Yonghua, 58, is among the first to set up a workshop in the movie town.
“This place is near Beijing, where we have our head office. And as a creative company, we need a quiet and conducive place like this for our scriptwriters to develop their ideas,” he told reporters.
At the congress, President Xi Jinping had declared that China’s development is now focused on higher-quality growth.
The transformation of Dachang is in line with the new focus. It is one of several small towns surrounding Beijing that are now home to dozens of advanced manufacturing factories, tech start-ups and movie companies.
They come under a plan to integrate Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province – which together comprise more than 150 million people – rolled out in 2013.
Industries and other “non-capital functions” in Beijing have been progressively relocated to Hebei to curb pollution and congestion in the capital as well as spur the development of small towns in Hebei.
Singaporean Arina Ong, 35, deputy director at Base FX, a special-effects production house, is now based in Dachang to run an institute to train people in creating special effects for the screen.
She said: “Beijing is also getting very expensive, so many media companies are moving out of the city in search for cheaper alternatives.”
Being in Dachang “opens up more opportunities for future collaborations with other companies”, she said, though Base FX still has its main branch in Beijing, along with two other studios in eastern Wuxi and southern Xiamen.
Transformations are taking place outside Dachang too.
Nearby Xianghe county is also trying to move up the value chain, to be known for more than just furniture and meat pie. The county of 330,000 residents is instead eyeing a slice of the growing pie in the business of making industrial robots.
A so-called robot town has sprung up in Xianghe’s outskirts. So far, 70 robot-makers have committed to setting up shop there, including more than 30 that have already started operations. Last year, their total output value reached nearly 1 billion yuan.
A hotel and theme park to develop tourism around the theme of artificial intelligence are on the cards.
Xianghe also aims to offer a conducive environment for start-ups. Since 2015, it has been home to start-up incubator Guoan Maker, a subsidiary of state-owned investment company Citic Guoan Group, which has pumped in 40 million yuan to nurture 40 technology and creative start-ups.
Mr Leo Ding, 27, founder of GTC Aviation Technology, moved his headquarters and more than 10 employees from Beijing to Xianghe, Hebei.
The firm makes industrial drones, including those used for security surveillance and for spraying pesticides. His overseas clients come from 23 countries, including the United States, Mexico, Peru and South Korea.
“Given the integration of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, we’re able to enjoy the same policies, whether we are in Beijing or in Xianghe,” said Mr Ding who started the company in 2012. “This place is still very near our Beijing customers, who are mostly from the government departments.”
Another start-up founder, Ms Zhang Jianjiao, 31, told The Straits Times that apart from technology, the eldercare industry is another fast-growing sector that has a lot of potential. “Given the fast pace (at which) China is ageing, and the strong support that the government has given the industry in recent years, it is set to take off in a big way,” said Ms Zhang, who started her firm in 2013.
She moved her business of designing elderly-friendly furniture and facilities from Beijing to Xianghe as it is her hometown.
“Also, my background is in product design, and Xianghe is famous for our furniture industry. So it makes sense for me to bring my team of eight designers here, where I can consolidate all my resources,” she added.