"You can feel the hunger, aspirations, and dreams."

If you guessed that was poet Carl Sandburg gushing over Chicago circa 1919, you're close. In fact, it's Singapore's education minister gushing over his recent visit … to China.

How is that close?
Ha. I can explain. First, you might want to glance over The Real China Miracle, Part 1. Or if you prefer, here's the short story: Last year, I accompanied global investing expert Bill Mann to China. I was blown away by what I saw.

Our goal was to write back with specific investments that could help Motley Fool readers like you cash in on the so-called opportunity of a lifetime. We weren't disappointed. Investors who signed up to receive our dispatches from Asia could have earned 40% returns, and in some cases, more.

Yet the most lucrative investment "idea" we brought back wasn't a Chinese stock at all but a story. And next week, Bill and I will fly again to China to confirm it with our own eyes. If you like, you can "join" us -- on The Motley Fool's tab. Here's why I think you should.

The opportunity of a lifetime?
In Part 1, I discussed what demographers are calling "the largest urbanization in human history." Present-day China looks like the U.S. … in 1911. And you may remember that investing in turn-of-the-century America turned out to be a pretty smart move -- like shooting fish in a barrel.

What might have been lost in that discussion is the awesome scale of this opportunity. For perspective, consider the following facts from business consultant Dezan Shira & Associates, comparing China and the present-day U.S.:

  • Of 666 cities in China, 11 have populations exceeding 2 million -- compared with four in the U.S.
  • Another 23 cities have between 1 million and 2 million people -- compared with five in the U.S.
  • Of the remainder, 44 "smaller" Chinese cities have between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants -- exactly twice the number we have here in the U.S.

And those numbers are as of June 2006. One year later, The New York Times reported the number of Chinese cities exceeding 1 million in population at a mind-boggling 93 -- compared with just nine in the U.S.

Now, it's topped 100!
In other words, people may well be flocking to Beijing and Shanghai at the same rate Americans flocked to New York and Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, but the absolute numbers are mind-boggling. More important, focusing on the massive migration to Beijing and Shanghai is missing the real excitement.

See, that's the story we uncovered: The real China miracle is what's taking place in the country's "smaller" so-called Tier 2 cities, which Richard Van den Berg, China manager for giant ING Real Estate, insists are "of a completely different order from the rest of the world." The International Herald Tribune hits the point home even harder, declaring, "Even the smallest second-tier cities are huge."

And it's just beginning. The Wall Street Journal estimates that, in the next 10 years, an additional 150 million people -- equal to Russia's entire population -- will descend on China's Tier 2 cities.

You read that right …
"Equal to Russia's entire population." Are you starting to see the magnitude of what we're dealing with?

So, how to play it? Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), with $1 billion in China sales in 2006, is an obvious play on the construction boom that has to follow all of that migration, as is Dow component United Technologies (NYSE:UTX), maker of Otis elevators (can you guess the world's largest elevator market?), among other top industrial brands.

On the softer side, there's Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM), parent of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC, all of which have deep roots in China's big cities and -- as we confirmed firsthand last year -- are spreading like wildfire across the interior. There's a similar story with Starwood Hotels (NYSE:HOT), which operates more than 35 hotels in China and is expanding its footprint aggressively.

Even softer, you say? China has the largest number of Internet users on the planet. Meanwhile, the number of cell phones has exploded from 87 million in 2000 to more than 450 million today. Companies like Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), Motorola (NYSE:MOT), and Nokia (NYSE:NOK) are poised to benefit.

China's Manifest Destiny
As I hinted in Part 1, developing its second- and third-tier cities is literally written into China's official Five-Year Plan. These guys don't mess around. Already, the country is exploding with newly middle-class consumers eager to buy homes, clothing, and new cars; to look and feel healthy; and to get the education they'll need to be part of the new economy.

And that's not only in Beijing and Shanghai. It's happening in cities you've never heard of, like Tianjin and Shenyang. This is what Morgan Stanley's chief economist calls, "The biggest economic story to come out of China in 25 years." I call it China's Manifest Destiny.

The real way to play China
If you think the China plays I discussed above are conservative or even obvious, you may be right. Established companies with global footprints -- and solid Tier 2 strategies -- are the "safe" way to expose yourself to the China growth miracle. But what if you're not looking to hedge your bets?

In Part 3, we'll discuss Chinese companies you can invest in today that are poised to benefit from the Tier 2 story. One is an Internet company whose CFO blew me away when we met at the company's Beijing headquarters and who assures me that "all signals are go" in China's Tier 2 cities.

A second is a tiny industrial safety company whose products and expertise are so highly regarded in China that its leading officials helped write the country's construction and fire-safety regulations.

Global Gains advisor Bill Mann and I leave tomorrow to tour China's Tier 2 cities and to pick the brains of business leaders with aggressive Tier 2 strategies. We have appointments with both companies I mentioned above -- plus stops in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Why wait for us to get home?
And you can join us. If you'd like receive our dispatches from Asia, relaying what we uncover in as close to real time as humanly possible, we'd love to send them to you. All you have to do is send us your email in the box below. But don't wait -- our plane lifts off on Friday.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.