Small-cap, gold and China funds delivered double-digit returns in the first quarter of the year, outperforming diversified U.S. equity funds' returns of 6.67% and large-caps' 3.07%, according to Lipper data, the Associated Press reports.

Aggressive small-cap funds returned 12.56% and conservative small-cap funds returned 10.56%. Gold funds, meanwhile, rose 21.37% and China funds delivered 19.95%.

Other strong performers included real estate funds, which rose 13.75%, and natural resources funds, which rose 11.88%.

Sectors that have hit strong strides in the past year fell flat in the first quarter. These included Japan and healthcare funds. After delivering 42.71% in 2005, Japan funds eked out average returns of 4.55% in the first quarter. But some analysts are not ready to give up on the region.

"Certainly, China is the major growth market in Asia," said Bill Sickles, senior research analyst at Lipper. "But I wouldn't put the Japanese funds away yet."

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