Serious business

Xiamen: Inside one of China’s most exciting tech cities

Forward-thinking government plans are attracting young entrepreneurs and tech giants to this increasingly innovative coastal city. Words by TOM O'MALLEY, illustrations by RYAN CHAN

When it comes to technology and innovation in China, mega-cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, or established behemoths like Beijing, Hangzhou and Xi’an, usually grab all the headlines. But the compact city of Xiamen, hugging the coast in Fujian Province, has been punching above its weight for a while now.

One of China’s new breed of emerging first-tier cities, Xiamen is ranked fourth in GDP per square kilometre, behind only Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou. In 2017, there were 1,200 tech companies operating in its science parks and incubators. Robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, virtual reality, e-commerce, mobile software, automation, the internet of things – these cutting-edge, emerging industries are thriving in a city that Deng Xiaoping established as one of his original four special economic zones back in the 1980s.

Forward-thinking government policy continues to help propel the city on, with schemes like funding for the development of hacker spaces. These include cafe-like places to host communities of creators, entrepreneurs and designers; there are almost 100 such spots in the city. There’s also Xiamen Software Park, home to selfie tech giant Meitu’s headquarters, and more than 3,000 other companies. It’s now part of a pilot batch of cities that will develop the use of big data for the healthcare industry.

It used to be that talent acquisition was a problem for cities like Xiamen, with its lower global profile compared with Beijing and Shanghai. But increasingly, hungry young innovators flock to Xiamen seeking not only to thrive in its startups, but also to live and work in a coastal city riding a wave of cool. With its flourishing creative scene, innovative urban projects like the world’s longest elevated cycle path established in 2017, unpolluted air and pleasant climate, Xiamen is one of China’s most attractive cities to live and prosper.

The person: Cai Wensheng

Innovation Asia, Xiamen
Ryan Chan

Cai Wensheng cares about how you look. That’s why he co-founded Meitu (literally ‘beautiful picture’) in Xiamen in 2008, a company that has grown into one of the world’s leading creators of beauty-enhancing selfie apps. Cai’s suite of apps, including Meitu, BeautyPlus and video-based social media app Meipai, has over 480 million users and has been installed on over 1.5 billion devices worldwide – including Meitu-made phones. The company’s candy-coloured handsets are loaded with beauty-enhancing artificial intelligence (AI) features and larger front-facing cameras.

Born in 1970 in Quanzhou, a city close to Xiamen, Cai is a billionaire angel investor, with investments in more than 19 companies since 2017. But he started out in 1999 purchasing and selling expired domain names to buyers all over the world. In 2003, he founded navigation website 265.com, which was acquired by Google.

At Meitu, Cai’s mission is ‘to build a beautiful world’, and there’s no better city to do it in than Xiamen. ‘Xiamen is the best city in terms of a place where living and working are combined,’ says Cai, who compares it not to San Francisco or Silicon Valley but to Seattle – ‘the most beautiful city in the United States’, as he calls it.

But his journey at Meitu hasn’t been all enhanced smiles and rosy cheeks, with stocks performing poorly following a bumper Hong Kong public offering in 2017. Which is why Cai is seeking to elevate his software beyond the selfie, offering new features that employ AI and big data to do things like analyse your skin and work with health and beauty professionals to suggest makeup products, or hairstyles that match your face shape. Social media is another area that Cai is increasingly turning to, with the recent launch of an Instagram-style app that might provide more revenue possibilities for the 10-year-old tech giant, which is still yet to turn a profit. meitu.com

The product: Meiyou

Innoivation Asia, Xiamen
Ryan Chan

Meiyou, also called Meet You, an app founded in 2013, started out as a simple period tracker but has evolved into a multifaceted women’s health app and a social platform for Chinese females. As well as providing services in areas like pregnancy preparation and mental health, it also offers message boards to discuss topics like fashion, fitness and weight loss or simply to make new friends.

This year the Xiamen-based company was listed by entrepreneurship website iheima.com as one of the Top 100 Unicorn Companies in China (‘unicorn’ denotes a private startup valued at over US$1 billion). The women’s health app sector in China is fiercely competitive, with a number of rivals vying for top spot. But it’s the community-based approach of Meiyou that has elevated this product above its rivals, and seen it become so much more than what it set out to be.

Today, the app boasts more than 150 million registered users, and 7 million daily active users, and its busy message boards are seen by many as a vital information-sharing resource amid some of the taboos that still surround sexual health discussions.

What to watch

DIY drones

Want to build your own drone? The open-source components you find will likely be made by Xiamen-based Hex. Pixhawk2 is the company’s latest component, which lets your drone fly in autopilot.

Forensic Tech

Xiamen firm Meiya Pico is one of China’s leading forensic technology companies. The company calls its Forensic Magicube touch-screen device the ‘Swiss Army Knife of forensics’. It helps operatives in the field crack, scan and analyse data from phones and computers in seconds.

Gaming Reality

Xiamen mobile game giant G-Bits released Deadly Hunter, its first cross-platform game designed exclusively for virtual reality, on the PC-based Steam platform in 2017. This highly immersive game is designed to be used with popular hardware like Oculus Rift.

Cathay Dragon flies to Xiamen from Hong Kong 28 times a week

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