Foshan: Where legends are born

The municipality of Foshan looks like a suburb of Guangzhou on a map. The two are divided only by a small river and if their boundary were removed they would look like what is expected of a major megalopolis. Which is why it makes sense that they are intertwining more by the day, with a common Metro system and joint planning commissions. But go back in time, not that far, and Foshan’s status as a dynamic and brilliant city in its own right becomes clearer. 

Located to the west of Guangzhou, Foshan has not received the kind of attention it deserves in recent years. While much media focus has been on the rise, fall and recovery of Dongguan, to the east of Guangzhou, since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, Foshan has been left out of the limelight for good reason: it has been a no-drama story. While the rest of the Greater Bay Area has tales of “shock and scramble” to tell about the post-2008 period, Foshan doesn’t: its industrial structure was unique and it alone went through the crisis largely unscathed.

For this reason, visitors are often surprised when it is pointed out to them that Foshan has Guangdong’s third-biggest economy after Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Yet far from resting on its laurels in traditional industries such as household appliances, textiles and ceramics, Foshan is forging a new direction for itself, with Guangzhou’s pull, transforming itself into an advanced hi-tech manufacturing base. 

Foshan in Numbers (2018)

  • RMB993.59 billion in GDP, +6.3%
  • Per capita GDP RMB125,679, +0.77%
  • Industrial output
    • Agriculture and mining: RMB14.45 billion, +5.8%
    • Manufacturing: RMB561.4 billion, +6.1%
    • Services: RMB417.74 billion, +6.6%
  • Fixed-assets investment: RMB181.14, +5.6%
  • Exports: RMB352.74 billion, +11.9%
  • Imports: RMB107.19 billion, -11.0%
  • Foreign direct investment: RMB4.57 billion, -59.31%
  • Population: 7.91 million in 2018

Although it is covered with multiple rivers and waterways, the Pearl river does not actually run through Foshan. Guangzhou has always protectively kept Nansha, at the mouth of the mighty river, to itself. Perhaps that is what gave Foshan its distinct identity. The Beijiang and Xijiang (North and East) rivers run through Foshan’s main CBD and cover most of the municipality with their tributaries, bringing sufficient water, ensuring rich soil, and guaranteeing the humid subtropical climate. 

Picture: Location of Foshan

Today, there is no doubt where Foshan’s future lies. It is increasingly meshing with the provincial capital, with the aim of integrating into a megalopolis. This can be seen most strikingly in Foshan’s Nanhai district, which borders Guangzhou, where the manufacturing industry is both a spillover from the capital and an engine of growth for it. 

Picture: 5 main districts of Foshan

Did you know? 

Although Foshan is best-known for its manufacturing industry, particularly the home-appliance king of Midea Corp., its food culture is famed throughout southern China. The city’s agricultural roots run deep. Ask any serious foodie and they will tell you that the Shunde district is a place you cannot miss, home to the “Shunde BBQ Goose (Shao’e)” and double-layered milk custard. Porridge-based hotpot and all kinds of seafood are legendary. Even the Greater Bay Area masterplan took space to mention it, proposing to build Foshan as an “international city of delicacies” by developing its Cantonese food culture. 

Speaking of legends, Foshan has a long list of famous sons of the soil. They include Hong Kong business giants such as the late Cheng Yu-tong and the recently retired Lee Shau-kee, property magnates who spun their early successes into multi-billion-dollar conglomerates. Both were born in Foshan and, many say, inherited the industrial and enthusiastic business spirit of the city from the richness of the land where they grew up. 

There is one legendary figure who eclipses them all, however. He is a kung-fu master and an actor who dazzled not only Hong Kong, but Hollywood as well: Bruce Lee. He followed a long line of martial-arts masters from Foshan. Another was the founder of the Wing Chun school, Ye Wen, who was born and raised in a wealthy family in Foshan. Wong Fei-hung, known as “Lion King” taught and developed the Hung Ga school. He has a museum to commemorate his life in Foshan. 

What’s the plan?

Foshan and Guangzhou have been pushing forward their urban integration plans for a decade already, but the process is being accelerated under the GBA masterplan. It has its genesis in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Although Foshan’s housing market plunged at the time, the city managed to keep its industrial engine humming. Its growth rate went up, in fact, and it stood out in 2009 as the fastest growing (+15.2%) of all the provincial cities. 

Foshan’s resilience stood out, and officials in the provincial capital took note. It had a more broadly diversified local economy than the regional stars of Shenzhen and Dongguan, was not overly dependent on foreign-invested companies, and was able to focus on expanding sales to the rest of country while exploring new markets abroad. Foshan’s industries were not glamorous – textiles, ceramics and home appliances were the three largest – and the government quickly tasked them with assessing new overseas markets such as Russia, the Middle East, and South Africa. At the same time, the government took the opportunity to push for reinvestment into industrial upgrading and encouraged technological innovation, exploring new industries and deepening collaboration with R&D institutions throughout Guangdong.

Today, Foshan is doing well. Foreign direct investment and imports plunged last year, yet the economy has managed to maintain a steady pace. It is not growing as fast as Dongguan, but then, again, it hasn’t had to. Foshan has a sizeable base to work from, and its transformation has been steadier as a result. And it no longer makes as much sense to measure it apart from Guangzhou. Indeed, when put together, Foshan catapults Guangzhou well clear at the top of the country’s rankings for city economies, with a combined population of 22 million and a GDP of RMB3.29 trillion.

The mantra coming out of government offices these days is that Foshan will continue to boost industrial development collaboratively with Guangzhou, focusing on new industries such as advanced equipment manufacturing, vehicles, new-generation information technology, biotech, and healthcare. And its infrastructure will continue to be built out in a way that makes transport to and from the city’s key clusters as seamless as possible. 

Planes, trains and automobiles

Readers’ eyes might glaze over when a feature story starts to talk about railway plans for yet another large city in the Greater Bay Area. Like the others, Foshan is part of a massive infrastructure buildout that will see will subways, high-speed railways, intercity railways, and trams spring up in the very near future. What makes Foshan different than the other cities, however, is that it is building itself an international airport. Here is a table of the key projects currently under way.

Picture: Guangzhou’s rail and air transportation planning

The current pride and joy of local officials is the city’s metro system, which is the country’s first to have been integrated between two major cities. The Guangzhou-Foshan Metro has 25 stations: 15 go through three districts in Foshan, including Shunde, Chancheng, and Nanhai, while the other ten go through Guangzhou’s Liwan and Haizhu districts. Moreover, passengers can directly transfer to Lines 1, 2, 3, and 8 of Guangzhou Metro. And Guangzhou Metro plans to add eight more metro lines linking up to Foshan.

These are only the slower underground trains. The Guangzhou-Foshan-Zhaoqing Intercity Railway is also in use. 

Picture: Major railway stations in Foshan and Guangzhou

A new Intercity line coming in October this year will be even more important. The Guangzhou-Foshan Circular Intercity Railway will connect the western districts of Foshan with the big Guangzhou South Railway Station hub. This means all of Foshan will be easily accessible by high-speed train from Hong Kong. The first phase of the line includes five stations from Foshan West to Guangzhou South. Phase 2 will go from Guangzhou South to Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport. Another intercity railway connecting Foshan with Dongguan is expected to finish construction next year. 

Picture: Map of Guangzhou-Foshan Circular Intercity Railway (Phase I)

Then there are the four high-speed railways that are being built and will run through Foshan, allowing fast connections with Shenzhen, Nanning, Zhanjiang, Zhaoqing, and Jiangmen, expanding its network to the west side of Zhujiang river and connecting it with other national railways heading northwards. 

Foshan is also expected to launch its first tramway, Nanhai New Transport, by the end of this year. The tram line includes 13 stations and is expected to connect with Guangzhou South Railway Station in the future.

Picture: Tramway of Nanhai New Transport in Foshan

All of this pales in comparison to plans for the Greater Bay Area’s fourth major international airport. Work is expected to begin at rhe end of this year on the Pearl-River Delta New Airport, situated at the boundary of Foshan and Zhaoqing, in the Gaoming district. It will become the western GBA’s air transportation hub and will be built to handle 50 million passengers per year – which is what Shenzhen’s airport is handling at present.

Innovation, you ask?

Foshan’s future, unsurprisingly, lies wrapped up in the same hi-tech dream that the rest of the province, and most of the country, is wrapped in. It is building these dreams in a Hi-tech Innovation Zone in the Nanhai District, close to Guangzhou. This is the core zone of Foshan’s National Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone project, which also has industrial zones in Chancheng, Shunde, and Sanshui. The area aims to develop as a base of smart manufacturing and has already formed four industrial clusters: flat panel displays, automotive parts, semiconductor lighting, and high-end equipment manufacturing.

Nanhai has a well-developed manufacturing industry. In 2018, there were 11 industries in the district that generated RMB20 billion. Particular focus is being placed on growth in vehicles, electronics, and metal products. The future growth is expected to come from innovative startups. Nanhai is now home to 1,513 hi-tech enterprises. It registered a27,904 applications for patent rights in 2018, up 34.5%, while approved patents jumped 53.7% to 16,345.  

Increasingly, investors from Hong Kong and Macau are playing an important role in Foshan’s development. The innovation cluster in Nanhai is being built in collaboration with Hong Kong in finance and technology. 

By the end of last year, Foshan had 7,668 Hong Kong-invested projects, attracting RMB53.9 billion. Macau has also been actively investing in Foshan, with RMB3.2 billion of investment in 615 projects. The Foshan government also encourages local companies to invest in Hong Kong, providing subsidies. Last year, Foshan invested in 15 companies in Hong Kong. It is not hard to see why: Hong Kong is also a major market for Foshan’s trading business, accounting for 30% of total traded value at US$414 million, up 115% last year. 

In the recently released GBA master plan for Guangdong province, Foshan was mentioned multiple times as a core city of development. The Foshan government is planning to further attract investment from Hong Kong and Macau as well as connect with the international market through the two SARs. 

Read also our features on traditional industries in Foshan and the challenges they face in upgrading for a new era:

Sofa Kings look to upgrade

Aluminum powerhouse leaps into trading

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