The first impulse of investors wanting to take a bite of the apple might be to buy an index fund, but this can be risky. Because of their overweighting in things like financials, the Chinese indexes can often fail to reflect the diversity of the country. When you buy an index in the U.S., you're often getting a good snapshot, says Trippon, but with China that's not the case.

"The main Chinese index people refer to in the United States is the FXI," Trippon says. "It's 25 companies. That's not a representative sample of their economy, not like you would get if you bought the S&P 500 or the Russell 1000." Trippon thinks investors should avoid open- and closed-end funds that invest directly in China; he seeks cheap companies on the Hong Kong and New York exchanges.

Gao also looks askance at the indexes. He says the Matthews fund uses the MSCI China Index as its benchmark. "But it's not really a good representation of the real economy in China [because it's] quite overweight in certain industries. I think the top 10 or maybe less, the top five companies of the MSCI index account for probably around 38% to 40% of the index. Also, it has a very heavy weighting in financials and energy."

His fund instead seeks more diversity with overweight positions in consumer discretionary, consumer staple and technology companies. He likes companies such as, an online travel service that plays on the country's booming tourism industry, and Ping An, a massive insurance player with a presence all over the country that has been diversifying into other forms of financial services and has taken on big investments from Western financial behemoths such as HSBC.

Franklin Templeton's Sleeman likes Australian conglomerate Seven Network, which sells Caterpillar equipment in China, a play on infrastructure. Because his fund doesn't like banks, the company has gotten financial exposure through a company called CNinsure, an insurance brokerage business that allows the fund another way to take advantage of increased car and home ownership.

The Franklin Templeton fund also invests in Volkswagen, a huge player in China, to get a piece of the booming car market. "China has overtaken the U.S. as the major consumer of auto vehicles, and we interestingly have an exposure to that through Volkswagen because Volkswagen's always been [a] leader in the Chinese market, and again they're moving up the value chain," Sleeman says. "And Audi sales have just been stupendous."

Trippon disagrees with the last strategy, saying China can't save a company suffering elsewhere. For example, he says, General Motors is the No. 1 car company in China, which is now the world's No. 1 car market. But that doesn't mean investors would want it (the troubled GM, after emerging from bankruptcy last year, is now owned mostly by the U.S. government and is looking to re-emerge in an IPO).

In China, Trippon says, "They love the Buick for some reason. God knows why, but they do." But, "The fact that [General Motors] is the biggest foreign car manufacturer in China isn't sufficient to offset their other problems."

Trippon thinks an alternative way to play the auto market might be to invest in the country's two gasoline companies, Sinopec or PetroChina, though he concedes these companies might not appeal to value investors.

Del Ray's Hechmer adds that if everyone's trumpeting Volkswagen for its huge market share in China, that euphoria may already be priced into the stock-so value investors beware. Furthermore, Chinese buyers also have local brands they can buy. Which means Volkswagen might not be much better than a commodity investment. "Volkswagen has nowhere near the barriers to entry in China that some copper producer has," he says.