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Gallic charm to revive town

Gallic charm to revive town

Write: Brigit [2011-05-20]

Gallic charm to revive town

A woman carries a girl in the French-style new town of Bailu, Pengzhou, Sichuan province. Cui Meng / China Daily

Quake-hit Bailu hopes tourists will flock to French-style development

PENGZHOU, Sichuan - Yang Qinggui plans to learn how to cook some simple Western dishes and design a hiking route to the surrounding mountains.

His 9-year old daughter is collecting information from the Internet to help her father decorate their new guesthouse in a Western style.

"I am quite confident about the future business of my new guesthouse, which is built in the style of a French villa," said Yang, from the town of Bailu, near Pengzhou, Sichuan province.

Yang earned his living from a small guesthouse before the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, serving visitors dishes made with wild herbs.

However, just a couple of weeks after he invested all of his savings in the decoration of the traditional Chinese guesthouse, the quake totally destroyed his home and killed his 21-year old son.

"I fell into a deep depression," said Yang.

Yang and his fellow local residents never imagined that a local government scheme would become a win-win solution for the village to recover from the quake.

"We have a very bold plan to rebuild our town as a romantic French village, aiming to attract tourists from Chengdu, Chongqing and also foreign countries," said Gao Tiancheng, chairman of the people's congress of Bailu township.

According to Gao, when he took the position in 2005, the pillar industry of Bailu, a small town about 90 km north of Chengdu, with a population of 10,000 in the remote mountains of Sichuan province, was coal mining.

"As the coal would run out in the near future, we had to start finding ways to replace the mining industry," said Gao.

In 2006, the central government called for the closure of all coal mines with a capacity under 3 tons, leaving Bailu with just one mine allowed to operate.

"The May 12 earthquake destroyed the last coal mine. After that, we shut all the coal mining facilities," said Gao.

However, without the mining industry, people in Bailu would find it hard to make a living just from farming in this mountainous area.

"Actually, just before the earthquake, the idea of developing tourism popped into my mind," he said.

According to Gao, Bailu has had connections with French people since the 1880s.

Local buildings constructed at the time, such as the French-style Lady Chapel and Shangshu College, had been popular tourist destinations.

"Shangshu College, which was originally a French missionary school, became world famous after a photographer took a series of pictures of it collapsing during the quake as he was shooting wedding photos," said Gao.

"Bailu and Shangshu College were then in the spotlight as the photographer put all of the pictures online."

The local government then decided to make Bailu a French-style town, making tourism the local pillar industry.

The local government began to consult experts and asked an architecture design institute in Chengdu to design the French-style town.

"The construction of French villas and castles is a huge investment, which our local government cannot afford," said Gao.

"So we have drawn up a plan to attract investment."

The plan makes the local government the coordinator between the villagers and the real estate company.

The main street of the French-style town has already taken shape, with construction of the entire project due to be completed before 2012, Gao said.

"The villagers can open small shops, guesthouses or rent their homes to others in a bid to make money. We also plan to develop wedding album studios here as the French-style town is certain to prove popular as a location for wedding photography," said Gao.

Gallic charm to revive townDouble dip unlikely

Bailu also plans to venture into the winemaking industry by building a vineyard that can provide high-quality grapes.

"Visitors will be able to experience the whole process of winemaking and taste locally produced wine."

In order to attract tourists from Chengdu and Chongqing, the local government has been granted $20 million by the French Development Agency for the construction of a rural highway linking the Chengdu-Mianyang Expressway to the town.

"The fund will also help us establish waterworks and a sewage treatment plant."

"We are aiming to make Bailu a nationally famous town like Lijiang in Yunnan province," said Gao.