HANGZHOU — Chen Zhe vividly remembers one particular part of his childhood. During summer and winter vacations, he would sit on a small bench in front of the TV, and eagerly wait for the cartoons to start.
"That was the happiest time of my childhood," said the 36-year-old native of Anji county in Huzhou city, East China's Zhejiang province.
He never imagined that one day he would return to his hometown to start a business that makes use of classic cartoon images from the films produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio.
Chen owns Mei@Yucun, a cafe that opened in March in Anji's Yucun village. A series of 1.7-meter-high decorations depicting characters from cartoons like The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven and the Calabash Brothers, stand in front of the store.
Cartoon figures also fill the cafe, which sells around 100 cultural and creative items based on the cartoons, including notebooks and key chains.
"The images are from classic cartoons made by the studio. It may be their debut in a rural cafe," he said.
Over the years, Yucun has embraced green development and has become a popular tourist destination for its picturesque rural landscape. However, this beautiful scenery has been hard won.
According to Ge Jun, a 36-year-old native of Yucun, the village wasn't always as it is today. The site of the Mei@Yucun, now a modern building, used to be a cement factory.
"When I was a child, there were mines and cement factories. My father worked as a miner in a lime kiln and was always covered in dust, and the village was shrouded in smoke all year round," said Ge.
The transformation occurred in 2003, when Zhejiang initiated a provincewide rural green revival program to improve the environment of villages and the quality of life. Yucun shut down its mines and cement factories to protect its deteriorating environment.
As its environment improved, an influx of visitors poured into the village, boosting tourism.
In 2021, Yucun was named one of the "Best Tourism Villages" by the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
In 2022, it launched the global partners program, hoping to encourage young people to participate in village life. Around 50 projects have been introduced, from fields including cultural creativity to the digital economy. Chen's cafe is one of them.
Chen had run a brand incubator in Shanghai that created real life spaces for Chinese cartoon characters.
"As more people began to visit Yucun, I decided to open a cafe," said Chen. "Then the global partners program inspired me. I wanted to bring coffee and cartoon characters to the village, to add color and vitality to the countryside."
"Because of their love of domestic animations, people easily create an emotional connection here. They are reminded of their most carefree times, when they could enjoy cartoons and be happy," he added.
Around 1,100 young people have participated in the program, introducing novel forms of business, such as study tours.
In 2022, Yucun earned a collective income of 13 million yuan ($1.8 million) and is projected to make 15 million yuan this year.
In addition to serving customers, Chen's cafe holds activities related to domestic animation, such as crafting clay figures.
He plans to encourage teams of animators to live in Yucun, and apply their aesthetics to the packaging of the village's products to expand their market. He also plans to cover the external walls of buildings with cartoon figures, to make the countryside more beautiful and creative.