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In September, I gazed out the window as the airplane made its final approach in Xiamen, a historic city in eastern China’s Fujian province. From my vantage point, I saw a giant creature strung between two pale gray industrial complexes — a vast crimson insect at least 20 meters tall, extending its limbs to cling to the buildings around it.

The otherworldly structure was, in fact, a towering logo suspended over Xiamen’s first shared office space for the city’s burgeoning creative industry. Liang Shuai, planning director of Xiamen United Development (XUD) — the state-run company that owns the premises — explains that the logo is a butterfly symbolizing the city’s rebirth as a creative hub.

The sign stands in sharp contrast to the area’s industrial past. Resembling the Chinese character mei, which means “beautiful” and appears in the Mandarin word for “America,” the logo harkens back to the site’s recent history as the home of the U.S.-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel cigarettes. Reynolds set up shop in Xiamen in 1986 before selling the property to Japan Tobacco International in the ’90s. When the Japanese left in 2004, the factory was placed back into Chinese state hands.

Mei also appears in a word meaning “magnificent,” and in 2015, XUD transformed the factory into an art zone called Huamei Kongjian — literally, “magnificent space.” It houses more than 100 tenants, 90 percent of which are startups in the creative industry. Huamei Kongjian is one of four industrial parks that XUD has transformed in Xiamen’s Huli District, which is also home to the city’s seaport and airport.

Xiamen’s creative industry has flourished since 2007, when public opposition to a planned chemical plant resulted in the project being moved outside the city. Though Xiamen’s ailing economy could have benefitted from the predicted 80 million yuan ($12 million) that the plant would have brought annually, people power ensured that the local environment took precedence over commercial gain. “That was a watershed year when the creative sector started to grow in Xiamen. The decade since has been a golden one for early birds like us,” says Yang Hanjing, curator of a private library displaying local cultural artifacts.

Originally from mountainous Guizhou province in China’s southwestern hinterland, 38-year-old Yang has spent 13 years doing business in Xiamen. His 1,000-square-meter enterprise, GoodOne, has the largest collection of local objets d’art of any private library in China. Its walls are lined with the motley clutter of old wardrobes, dowry trunks, chestnut desks, reading lamps, dial telephones, sewing machines, teacups, chopsticks, food coupons, mirrors, and even bathing permits used by workers during the pre-reform era.

Yang prides himself most on a collection of more than 70,000 patterned cement tiles rescued from the streets of Xiamen in 2014 before their host buildings were demolished to make room for the city’s new metro lines. The handmade tiles’ designs — floral patterns in burgundy and magnolia, obsidian eight-pointed stars, delicately painted concentric shapes — recall Xiamen’s history as a former treaty port trading with Southeast Asian colonies, especially the Dutch East Indies.

Xiamen’s merchants once decorated their lavish mansions with these tiles, but unfortunately, many of these houses were reduced to dust during the urban renewal campaigns of the last decade. Now, Yang makes money from selling old tiles through e-commerce platform Taobao. “It’s about collecting a piece of the once-vibrant history of the city,” he says.

In September, I gazed out the window as the airplane made its final approach in Xiamen, a historic city in eastern China’s Fujian province. From my vantage point, I saw a giant creature strung between two pale gray industrial complexes — a vast crimson insect at least 20 meters tall, extending its limbs to cling to the buildings around it.

The otherworldly structure was, in fact, a towering logo suspended over Xiamen’s first shared office space for the city’s burgeoning creative industry. Liang Shuai, planning director of Xiamen United Development (XUD) — the state-run company that owns the premises — explains that the logo is a butterfly symbolizing the city’s rebirth as a creative hub.

The sign stands in sharp contrast to the area’s industrial past. Resembling the Chinese character mei, which means “beautiful” and appears in the Mandarin word for “America,” the logo harkens back to the site’s recent history as the home of the U.S.-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel cigarettes. Reynolds set up shop in Xiamen in 1986 before selling the property to Japan Tobacco International in the ’90s. When the Japanese left in 2004, the factory was placed back into Chinese state hands.

Mei also appears in a word meaning “magnificent,” and in 2015, XUD transformed the factory into an art zone called Huamei Kongjian — literally, “magnificent space.” It houses more than 100 tenants, 90 percent of which are startups in the creative industry. Huamei Kongjian is one of four industrial parks that XUD has transformed in Xiamen’s Huli District, which is also home to the city’s seaport and airport.

Xiamen’s creative industry has flourished since 2007, when public opposition to a planned chemical plant resulted in the project being moved outside the city. Though Xiamen’s ailing economy could have benefitted from the predicted 80 million yuan ($12 million) that the plant would have brought annually, people power ensured that the local environment took precedence over commercial gain. “That was a watershed year when the creative sector started to grow in Xiamen. The decade since has been a golden one for early birds like us,” says Yang Hanjing, curator of a private library displaying local cultural artifacts.

Originally from mountainous Guizhou province in China’s southwestern hinterland, 38-year-old Yang has spent 13 years doing business in Xiamen. His 1,000-square-meter enterprise, GoodOne, has the largest collection of local objets d’art of any private library in China. Its walls are lined with the motley clutter of old wardrobes, dowry trunks, chestnut desks, reading lamps, dial telephones, sewing machines, teacups, chopsticks, food coupons, mirrors, and even bathing permits used by workers during the pre-reform era.

Yang prides himself most on a collection of more than 70,000 patterned cement tiles rescued from the streets of Xiamen in 2014 before their host buildings were demolished to make room for the city’s new metro lines. The handmade tiles’ designs — floral patterns in burgundy and magnolia, obsidian eight-pointed stars, delicately painted concentric shapes — recall Xiamen’s history as a former treaty port trading with Southeast Asian colonies, especially the Dutch East Indies.

Xiamen’s merchants once decorated their lavish mansions with these tiles, but unfortunately, many of these houses were reduced to dust during the urban renewal campaigns of the last decade. Now, Yang makes money from selling old tiles through e-commerce platform Taobao. “It’s about collecting a piece of the once-vibrant history of the city,” he says.

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