Why Apple’s ‘Champagne’ iPhone Isn’t True ‘Tuhao Gold’

Not gold enough for China's newly wealthy.

Not gold enough for China’s newly wealthy.

What exactly is the point of having a 26,000 RMB (about US$4,300) solid-gold iPhone 5s? This was the question one People’s Daily writer set out to answer in a recent Chinese-language article, when he got his hands on an 18-karat tuhao gold iPhone and wrote about his experience using it in order to figure out the mindset of China’s “crass” nouveau riche.

“Is it for flaunting wealth, signifying identity, or provoking controversy?” asks reporter Zhang Zhongguo in his article. “I want to share the point of view of the tuhao—mainly, what type of person actually buys this type of luxury phone? What exactly are they doing?”

When the gold iPhone was originally announced, Chinese netizens took to social media to complain that it was the phone of the uncultured, unsophisticated nouveau riche coal bosses (mei laoban, 煤老板) and tuhao (土豪), a sarcastic term once used by the Chinese Communist Party to refer to local landowning tyrants that has been re-appropriated to refer to a certain subset of China’s newly wealthy. Here’s a rundown of the English translation of tuhao from Tea Leaf Nation:

They are the tuhao – tu means dirt or uncouth; hao means splendor — and they are the Beverly Hillbillies of China. Or something like that: A crowdsourced translation call on China’s social media yielded “new money,” “slumdog millionaire,” the “riChinese” and “billionbilly.” When English falls short, French is on hand to help: Tuhao have the artistic sensibilities of the arriviste, the social grace of the parvenu, and the spending habits of the nouveau riche.

The term is now so ubiquitous that it might be added to the Oxford English dictionary. It has also inspired the term “tuhao gold,” a very specific shade and luster of the traditionally auspicious color that is often described with the term when used on cars.

gold-car

Apple’s gold iPhone managed to receive this “tuhao gold” designation as well on Chinese social media. According to Zhang,

“From my impression, Chinese people especially like gold. A common belief is that gold is higher quality and represents luxury. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good necklace or a gold ring: it just needs to be gold for everyone from east to west to think it’s good quality. The tuhao gold iPhone was naturally a hit with the public.”

However the “champagne”-colored iPhone designed by Apple is not true tuhao gold, he states, noting that the 18-karat version modified by a private company separate from Apple is much shinier and more ostentatious. In his opinion, the modified gold iPhone “is indeed quite unsophisticated and absolutely aimed at the tuhao. It will definitely make a lot of people think it’s tacky.”

A photo of the tuhao gold iPhone (L) with the actual "champagne" iPhone (R).

A photo of the tuhao gold iPhone (L) with the actual “champagne” iPhone (R).

Zhang doesn’t have too much to say about actually using the phone, stating that it just functioned like any other iPhone, and that he prefers Androids and sees the iPhone as more of an impractical status symbol. However, he does note, “When I used the phone, I most cared about other people’s stares. I was afraid people would recognize that it was an 18-karat gold phone, and that I would be robbed.”

He recognized that this is a major difference between the tuhao and the average middle class:

“The tuhao don’t have to think twice about the price. If they lose it, they lose it, and can just buy another. It would be impossible for an office worker to spend this much on a mobile phone. They don’t need to try to impress.”

This analysis of the mindset of the tuhao is part of an ongoing discussion on Chinese social media about tastes and attitudes among China’s newly wealthy. Many netizens are disdainful of what they see as a culture of uneducated, tasteless extravagance that comes with massive amounts money earned quickly.

For his conclusion, Zhang lists three types of people that would be willing to buy the phone. First are the “pure” tuhao. “In their eyes, when they go shopping, they aren’t looking for the best quality, but rather the most expensive,” he says. The second type is the “yuppie with money.” This person either buys the phone as a joke or cares that the product has some kind of meaning in addition to the price, hoping they can receive “face” from it. The third is someone buying it as a present for someone else. “They don’t understand phones; they’re just looking for something expensive to buy,” he says, believing these make up the largest piece of the market for this unique luxury item.

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