What It’s Like To Get Up-Close And Personal With China’s New Elite

UnsavoryElements

The book cover for Unsavory Elements (L) and Shanghai writer Susie Gordon (R).

In China, the term tuhao (土豪), a phrase that is commonly used to describe the country’s “tacky” nouveau riche, conjures up very specific imagery for those familiar with it. Logo-laden luxury goods, over-the-top wedding ceremonies, and the unmistakeable hue of tuhao gold (土豪金) that graces everything from flashy cars to expensive iPhone cases are classic signifiers of the ostentatious lifestyle.

Shanghai-based British writer Susie Gordon is probably more familiar with this concept than many foreigners in China. In one chapter of a new book called Unsavory Elements, which features short stories on life as a foreign expat in China, Gordon recounts a typical night partying with the family of her ultra-rich business partner in Shanghai, Zhou Ning. It’s clear from the story that Zhou is all about tuhao style, but not as much as his his 20-something, work-averse son Zhou Li—a true member of China’s fuerdai (富二代), or second-generation rich. With a penchant for high-end cars, shark-fin soup, and 60,000-RMB bottles of wine, the Zhous represent the stereotypical baofahu (暴发户), or newly rich family in modern China.

We checked in with Gordon to ask her more about her firsthand experience with the culture of China’s newly minted elite. According to her, the descriptions of over-the-top spending only represent some of China’s new rich, but they certainly apply to the Zhous.

Read below to learn more about Gordon’s experiences, and check out an excerpt from her story and interview with Unsavory Elements editor Tom Carter. The book is available on  available on Amazon and at Earnshaw Books.

Your story focuses on interactions with a wealthy Chinese business partner, Zhou Ning. How were you able to meet him and earn his trust to go into business together?

As with all business in China, guanxi played a large part in my dealings with the Zhou family. It’s rare to find trusted business partners randomly; every link comes through knowing someone. However, there was randomness at play in my meeting Zhou Ning. When I moved to Shanghai in 2008, my landlord became my first friend. A rich Taiwanese, he was an old friend of Ning’s. During a series of banquets and parties, Ning and I got to know each other, and found some common ground. He was looking for a laowai [foreigner] to help him with a business endeavor, and I fit the bill. Ning’s cousin had attended the same university as me in England, which was another connection that inspired trust.

Many instances of your story discuss the lavish lifestyle of Zhou, his friends, and his family—including one instance where you go out for drinks with him and realize he’s been buying 60,000-RMB bottles of wine. What are some of the most over-the-top, elaborate displays of wealth you’ve seen firsthand among China’s nouveau riche?

Let me preface this point with the caveat that I’m wary of turning individual people and situations into spectacles for ridicule and judgment. However, some of the things I saw were pretty eyebrow-raising. Zhou Ning’s son, Li, loved fast cars. Every time a new model of his favorite brand was released, he bought it without question, even if he’d hardly driven the previous one. He didn’t bother to sell the old ones; the garage of the Zhou villa had to be extended twice to hold them all.

China’s ultra-wealthy nouveau riche have a reputation in China for behaving precisely like the characters described in your story. Are they all this extravagant or are there exceptions?

There are certainly exceptions. No group of people is completely homogenous, no matter how far-reaching the moral implications of their stereotypical image. I have a Shanghainese friend who is just as wealthy as Zhou Ning. She lives well but not extravagantly, and runs a non-profit organization devoted to helping underprivileged children in rural China. I also know a wealthy guy who has a very simple lifestyle, preferring to spend his money on foreign travel instead of material things.

Nouveau riche across the world are stereotyped as being much more prone to flaunting their wealth than those with “old money”—do you think this is true of China?

Of course. The world over, in all countries and societies that have become rich at various points, there is a marked transition of behavior associated with a quick acquisition of wealth. It hinges on status, and a fair amount of insecurity. The need to show off your money implies that you’re not used to it. In England, where I come from, the insidiously named “chav culture” plays into this. If you’re comfortable with your wealth and status, you don’t need to display gaudy brand names; if you have something to prove, you do. However, in China, not all newly wealthy people flaunt their money. Sometimes the richest person in the room can be the most unassumingly dressed.

Zhou Ning also had wealthy children, members of the often-discussed fuerdai, or second-generation rich. You mention that one of the 20-year-old sons didn’t work and lived a decadent life of partying. Is this typical for most fuerdai you’ve come across?

No. While I know plenty of fuerdai who live lavishly, just as many have jobs and projects, and have studied abroad. Many work in the creative industries—they’re fashion designers, entrepreneurs, photographers. I think this comes from a different sort of parental expectation. While a poorer parent might push their child into a traditional career such as teaching or engineering, to guarantee a stable salary, wealthy fathers and mothers allow their progeny to go “off-piste” into the less conventional sectors. There’s a saying in China that a dynasty can’t survive beyond its third generation. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the fusandai [third-generation rich].

Do you still keep in touch with the family you mention in your story?

I sometimes chat to Zhou Li over WeiXin [WeChat], but Zhou Ning moved to America a couple of years ago and I haven’t heard from him since. Zhou Li seems to be living the life he led when I knew him. His WeiXin Moments are mostly photographs of shiny new cars and nightclub tables festooned with vodka bottles.

China’s anti-extravagance campaign is aimed at officials, but have they felt any effects from it as privately wealthy individuals?

There is a certain amount of protectionism at play in the upper echelons of any society, which ensures that the super-rich stay super-rich, despite austerity. While you mightn’t see as many baijiu-fueled banquets now as you did a couple of years ago, the rich are still rich, and are still spending their money. It’s smoke and mirrors.

 

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