Only in China is it easy to overlook a city of 5.5 million people, but recent Frommer’s and Rough Guide volumes about China don’t even bother to mention Ningbo. It’s an oversight that might surprise Dow Chemical, DuPont, Hearst, HSBC, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Burberry and dozens of overseas companies with operations in this major port city on China’s east coast. Briefly in Shanghai’s shadow, Ningbo is re-emerging as an important export and economic hub, included this year in the China Travel Channel’s listing of “Cities of Best International Image.”
Situated 250 miles south of Shanghai around Hanagzhou Bay, Ningbo lies about 12 miles inland on the Yangtze Delta where the Yuyao and Yong rivers meet to flow into the East China Sea. Named for its “Calm Waves,” Ningbo’s deep, natural harbor has been its focal point dating back to the seventh century, when it emerged as the country’s trading center with Korea and Japan for tea, ceramics and silk.
After European traders arrived, Ningbo was named one of the five treaty ports open for foreign trade, which it dominated until supplanted by Shanghai. The city’s return to prominence was initiated by a mid-20th-century port revitalization in which the river was dredged; new terminals, bridges and ports were built; and facilities expanded to accommodate the growing output of chemicals, food processing and metallurgy.
One of China’s 16 sub-provincial cities — administrative units made up of a main central urban area and including the much larger surrounding area — Ningbo is governed by Mayor Mao Guanglie, a Communist Party member, who leads more than 40 administrative municipal units which set plans for modernizing grain and cotton agriculture, developing the port for international and national trade, supporting industry and improving the city’s infrastructure and environment.
With a harbor capable of handling the biggest vessels, Ningbo’s 10th five-year plan calls for creating a key international deepwater trans-shipment hub and a large ocean container trans-shipment base with an annual handling capacity of 200 million tons, including more than 5 million standard containers. Ningbo in 2008 ranked second in the world in cargo tonnage and seventh in container capacity, emerging as the port of choice servicing the Chinese east coast.
But the engine of the economy is industry. Once established in 1980, foreign enterprise quickly became the main focus of the city’s economic development. Ningbo’s strong manufacturing sector includes foreign-funded and private enterprises that produce high-quality, inexpensive goods for export in multiple light-industry categories: textiles, electronics, petroleum chemistry, pharmaceuticals, machinery, transportation, infrastructure, culture, tourism and real estate. An Internet list of local manufacturers names almost 2,000 factories doing business within the city, an industrial area now twice as big as similar regions around Shanghai.
Manufacturing categories are concentrated in specially designated business zones: Exxon Mobil, DuPont and Dow Chemical operate in the Ningbo Economic & Technological Development Zone near the port, with a framework for large-scale construction and development. The Ningbo National Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone serves as a technical innovation base for chemical production and processing, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, raw material processing and research and development. Operated by a Scandinavian management team, Nordic Industrial Park is the first wholly foreign-owned industrial park in China, and the Ningbo Free Trade Zone is the only one designated in the province for tax-free trading.
Completed in 2008, the 20-mile Hanagzhou Bridge — the world’s longest trans-oceanic span — links Ningbo to Shanghai in less than two hours and has increased foreign investment and economic integration between the two, with a significant impact on the local economy.
Implementing goals to create “a social ecological environment fostering overall development of the human being where people live in harmony with nature,” Ningbo has devoted up to 35 percent of its land area to parks. Nearly 40 bridges cross the three rivers. A subway system, started in 2006, will eventually include six lines. New high-speed rail lines due for completion in 2011 improve the links to nearby cities.
With a goal of 600 professional and technical workers for every 10,000 people, the city has four universities, including the country’s outstanding Ningbo Institute of Technology. Four hospitals provide special medical areas for foreign guests and English-language telephone consulting services.
Booming business has brought a growing community of foreigners attracted to the feel of a smaller town with a somewhat lower cost of living yet easy access to Shanghai’s boundless cosmopolitan amenities.
Ningbo has its own riverside Bund, a mini version of Shanghai’s active waterfront area, boasting cobblestone piers and wharves refurbished with versions of Italian cafés; German beer halls; Irish pubs; and restaurants offering Indian, French and other international food.
For years known principally as the entryway for tourist trips to nearby Putoshan IsLOO land, Ningbo now shows off local tourist sites including the historic Mediterranean-style Portuguese Church (40 Zhongma Lu) with whitewashed walls, colorful icons and a vaulted ceiling. The city’s sightseeing “must” is China’s oldest private library, the 16th-century Tianyi Ge Pavilion (4 Tianyi St.) with its rare wood blocks, ancient scrolls and Confucian classics, all displayed in a cluster of pavilions set in a traditional bamboo garden steps away from the wide green park surrounding picturesque Moon Lake.
For local color, Kaiming Jie is lined with shops, stalls and outdoor spots for enjoying seafood or picking up tangyuan, small boiled buns stuffed with ground sesame and sugar. In contrast, the vast urban mall Tian Yi Square (Zhongshan Road) hosts familiar retailers from Dunhill and Hugo Boss to KFC and Pizza Hut. At night its wide central fountain is the focus of a light show featuring water spray and music. Find high-end brands such as Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior in the riverside Heyi Avenue Shopping Center (78 Heyi Lu).
Clubs and bars within walking distance are in the Lao Waitan district, where students and businesspeople favor Le Cargo (33 Yangshan Xiang, tel 86 574 8766 5552) for disco after 11 p.m. on weekends. Professionals congregate at the Londoner Pub (46-13 Portman Jie, Caihong Bei Lu, tel 86 574 8193 6777), a business bar where the music isn’t deafening. Known for its live bands, Z Rocks (43-47 Zhongma Road, Lao Waitan, tel 86 574 8735 9063) features a guitarist who emulates Jimi Hendrix. The Crowne Plaza’s Sunset Bar (129 Yaohang Jie, tel 86 574 5619 9999) is popular in summer weather, when guests mingle in the boat-themed outside courtyard.
Info To Go
Updated in 2002, Lishe International Airport (NGB ) is among the busiest airports in the country, with flights arriving from domestic destinations, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Taiwan. Taxi fare for the seven-mile ride into the city costs about $10 and takes about 20 minutes. Alternatively, a $2 shuttle bus runs every hour to the South Ningbo Railway Station. Visit www.ningboguide.com and www.ningbo.gov.cn.
Located in the city center near Moon Lake and Tianyi Ge Pavilion, this upscale hotel offers tranquility, attentive service and reasonable rates. 230 Liuting St., tel 86 574 2786 6666, $$
Occupying the top 18 floors of a 40-story building in the heart of the city, the Marriott’s 333 guest-rooms all feature river views. 188 He Yi Road, tel 86 574 8710 8888, $$$
This 5-star cousin of Atlanta’s Portman-designed hotel features a glass-domed swimming pool, Zenses Spa and Health Club and a rooftop tennis court. 50 Caihong Road N., tel 86 574 0765 8688, $$$
Arrayed beside the volcano-glass wall in the Sheraton lobby, the lavish daily buffet includes dim sum, pasta, seafood, 19 cake varieties and six ice cream flavors. 50 Caihong Road N., tel 86 574 8768 8688, $$$
Lang Qiao Xin Jing (Lake House)
Fusion cuisine is the centerpiece at this waterfront restaurant where the minimalist modern interior surprises diners entering the traditional house set among bamboo. 120 Liuting St., tel 86 574 8724 6777 $$$
Top-notch traditional Chinese cuisine is served in cloisonné tableware in this stylish antique house with 1920s-era décor and elaborate French chandeliers. 87 Huaishu Road, tel 86 574 8735 1111 $$$$
Checking In With Thane Holland
Business owner, Ningbo Guide Advertising Ltd., The Londoner Pub and Excel Sino Ltd.
As An American Businessman Seeking A Base In China, You Explored The Country And Visited 15 Cities Before Making A Selection. What Attracted You To Ningbo?
The pace of the local population’s business mentality is amazing. Ningbonese are more similar in business practices to Americans than those in most other cities in China.
The challenge of Ningbo — and of China overall — is that in order to discover voids in the market and thus new opportunities, one has to be on the ground to learn and research firsthand. Because of its proximity to Shanghai (which by now is market-saturated), its long history of foreign trade and the overall progressive attitude of the local government, Ningbo is a great place to achieve this. In terms of business, China’s second-tier cities are blossoming, and I think Ningbo is leading that charge.
You Operate Several Businesses In The City. What Helps You Overcome Your Reservations About Risk?
When a Chinese city strives to describe and market itself in its own campaigns by using the word “openness,” that’s a place that will offer opportunity.
How Has The City Transformed In The 10 Years Since You Arrived? Do You Find It A Liveable City?
I have watched the city sprout from having one 5-star hotel to more than 11 — and many more are currently under construction. The greenery of Ningbo is unique. Even though it is a huge manufacturing base, there are parks and just enough scenery to avoid the “concrete jungle” feeling.
What Advice Would You Share With People Interested In Working In China?
Socially speaking, living in China can be difficult; however, choosing a city like Ningbo ensures there are enough like-minded businesspeople around to keep you energized and focused.
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