Erenhot, China — ARMORED dinosaurs once ruled this Gobi Desert area near the Mongolian border. Millions of years later, it became the domain of Genghis Khan and his clan. Now the land belongs to Jin Xiancong and the people from Wenzhou.
Jin ships 10,000 VCRs each month into neighboring Mongolia, runs his own logistics firm and builds office properties. He will soon be mining iron and other minerals in the region, where winter temperatures can drop to 40 degrees below zero. Summers are so hot and dry that people get nosebleeds.
Jin was just 23 when he arrived in 1993 with little more than two large sacks stuffed with hairpins and trinkets to peddle to Chinese, Mongolian and Russian tourists. "My parents told us, 'Go out and explore,' " says the brush-cut Jin, whose four brothers and sisters are scattered in Italy making and selling apparel. "The farther you can reach, the stronger you get."
Like modern-day Marco Polos, the people of Wenzhou are extending the frontiers of China's booming economy. Hundreds of entrepreneurs from the southeastern Chinese city 1,200 miles away have flocked here, opening retail stores and developing hotels and apartments, even a $1-million nightclub featuring topless Mongolian dancers. (The club is named SOS, presumably after the distress signal.)
Undaunted by treacherous terrain, harsh climate and hostile governments, Wenzhou natives are spreading Chinese commerce not only here but across the globe. They are mining molybdenum in North Korea, acquiring cow leather from African tribes, selling shoes in Iraq and exporting Arctic shrimp and turbot from Iceland.
Even after two decades in Reykjavik, Iceland, seafood trader Xiang Youyi, 45, still finds it tough to endure two months of near-total darkness every year. "This place isn't suitable for living," he says, only to add: "I have opportunities here."
Almost 2 million people from Wenzhou, a metropolitan area of 7.5 million about 250 miles south of Shanghai in Zhejiang province, have left their homes over the years in search of riches. The migration goes back at least a century, but accelerated with Communist China's opening up to the West nearly 30 years
"Wherever there is business opportunity, there are Wenzhou people," says Zhong Pengrong, a prominent Chinese economist in Beijing. He calls them a people of "four thousand spirits" -- they walk through a thousand rivers and mountains, speak a thousand words to promote their goods, dare to solve problems in a thousand ways and endure a thousand hardships.
"Unlike many other businesspeople in China who became rich overnight," Zhong says, "almost all the Wenzhou people built up their wealth from nothing and amassed their fortune through years of hardship."
NOW, nearly half a million of them are staking their claims in 70 foreign countries, including 100,000 in the United States, mostly New York, where they've opened dozens of supermarkets and dollar stores. They like New York City because they don't need a car to get around, says Lin Ter-Hsien, who started out with a tiny gift shop in Brooklyn, then imported gloves from South Korea and hats from India and now invests in Los Angeles real estate. Lin splits his time between Alhambra, New Jersey and Wenzhou.
In Tanzania, Hu Qiaoming keeps a loaded pistol near his bedside because robbery is rampant. Even with a stable of dogs, an electric fence around his compound and alarms that will bring police within minutes, the 52-year-old entrepreneur doesn't take chances. A couple of years ago, he says, robbers killed two guards protecting the house next door.
Since arriving in the East African nation in 1993, Hu and his wife have opened shoe plants there and in Kenya, Congo, Zambia and Malawi. He keeps shotguns in his factories too, although they can't protect him from the sub-Saharan heat and long rains, political turmoil and disease.
Hu's employees have been ravaged by malaria, and his wife, Xu Shuping, has a four-inch scar running down her left arm, a reminder of the tumble their car took as it was hurtling along rugged roads.
Still, the couple made $3 million in profit last year. They have homes in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Wenzhou and Diamond Bar. If he could do it over again, Hu says, he wouldn't change a thing. "Many of the Africans who used to be barefooted are now wearing my shoes," he says, speaking from Wenzhou, where he was visiting for the lunar New Year holiday.
Scholars attribute such entrepreneurial verve to geographic isolation. Wenzhou is hemmed in by jagged mountains on three sides and the East China Sea on the fourth. Lacking arable land, many villagers must travel to prosper.