Wretched Excess

18 minute read
Hannah Beech Shanghai

Pompadour slicked perfectly into place, Huang Qiaoling gazes lovingly at his palatial home. Here, amid hectares of overgrown rice paddies in the eastern city of Hangzhou, Huang has built a display worthy of his splendid success: a $10 million replica of the White House. Huang, one of the richest men in China, wanders blissfully through a hall filled with portraits of America’s Presidents, then strides into the most hallowed room of all — the Oval Office. Every detail has been immaculately reproduced, from the $60,000 baroque sofa to the U.S. presidential seal on the carpet — naturally, made in China. “Everything you see here is just like Washington,” says Huang. “Only it’s all mine.”

A few changes have been made to suit his personal taste. In one cabinet, Huang, the 43-year-old founder of a Chinese tourism empire has substituted tomes on American history with minibar bottles of Remy Martin and a gaggle of dime-store ceramic ducks. On the mantelpiece of the Green Room stands a statue of Genghis Khan, whom “President Huang,” as his staff insists on calling him, counts as his personal hero. And outside the window of the Blue Room, which Huang uses as his office (it would be inappropriate, he says, to work in the Oval Office), is a one-third-size Mount Rushmore with employees’ quarters tucked in the back. Meanwhile, in front of the White House stands a miniature Washington Monument. “I bet you’ve never seen anything so wonderful,” says Huang. “This is my dream house.”

But one man’s ersatz castle is another’s vulgar affront. Not long after Huang’s mansion was completed in 1999, U.S.-led nato forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Huang found himself answering angry calls from Communist Party bureaucrats demanding to know why he had built an icon of imperialist America. “I told them it represented American culture, not politics, and it wasn’t their business what I built with my own money,” he says. “I had invested a lot in Hangzhou, and it doesn’t do any good to disrupt my business. I was sure they didn’t want me to move my money elsewhere.” The complaints ceased. More recently, though, Huang received the irritating news that another entrepreneur has built an almost full-scale U.S. Capitol building on the outskirts of Shanghai. Still, he insists, it doesn’t really faze him. “Everybody knows the White House is much more beautiful than the Capitol,” he says, sinking into an $8,000 chair in the Oval Office. “Besides, I have built Mount Rushmore and the Washington Monument, too. Who can compete with that?”

These days, plenty of mainlanders can. Decades after Mao realized his vision of a classless, property-less society by destroying wealth and all of its manifestations, China’s monied Elite is making a boisterous comeback. With the unleashing of private enterprise and the rapid development of coastal cities, China now boasts nearly 10,000 entrepreneurs each worth $10 million or more, according to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. The country’s affluent ranks are among the fastest growing in the world — the person who ranked 50th on a list of richest Chinese last year boasted $110 million; in 1999, No. 50 only had $6 million. Their commercial successes aren’t necessarily glamorous — one of the richest men in China, billionaire Liu Yongxing, built his empire supplying pig feed. Nor are they superlatively well-off by the standards of America’s Bill Gates or Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. But the economic clout of China’s nouveaux riches has become hard to ignore. Last year, the Communist Party finally admitted these once shunned capitalists into its fold.

Yet there are mounting concerns that all this rapid accumulation of wealth may be getting out of hand. The gulf between the superrich and the poor has expanded to its widest point in more than half a century. To many, China’s new moguls seem as greedily and crookedly voracious as America’s 19th century robber barons. According to a recent poll by the People’s University in Beijing, some 60% of Chinese believe the nation’s rich used illegal means to attain their wealth. In a rare acknowledgment of the country’s growing inequality, Lu Zhiqiang, a top government planning official, admitted in May that “Income distribution has become the most noticeable social problem in China.” A Shanghai mayoral staff member says, “China’s income divide is destroying the unity of our nation. The rich have to realize that their irresponsible spending patterns could threaten social stability.”

The reckless profligacy of this privileged class can be explained in part by its humble origins. Many rich Chinese grew up poorly educated and knowing only privation. Now that their rice bowls runneth over, they have an all-too-human tendency to overeat. President Huang, for example, was raised in an impoverished farming village in Zhejiang province. One of the highlights of each New Year came when his family received a colorful calendar from the state — a token gift for their contribution to the socialist cause. Huang would gaze at it for hours, enraptured by the lush English gardens, the idyllic Swiss chalets, the gleaming marble mansions with manicured topiaries. One year, the calendar showcased marvels of American grandeur, including Mount Rushmore and the White House. It was this calendar that inspired his remarkable building spree.

Because so many Chinese went from nothing to everything in just a few years, their newfound riches have left them a little giddy. Conspicuous consumption? There’s no other kind. To be suddenly wealthy in China is to be engaged in a full-blown, keeping-up-with-the-Chans spending contest. In June, a Bentley sold for 8.8 million yuan ($1.06 million) at a Beijing auction — apparently because eight is a lucky number, not because the car was worth that amount. Mainland tycoon Hui Wingmau bought a mansion in Hong Kong last year that was once the most expensive house in the world. In the gambling paradise of Las Vegas, Chinese jet-setters have displaced Japanese industrialists as the most prevalent — and most welcome — group of high rollers. Chinese entrepreneurs don’t tend to do the Jeff Bezos thing — dressing down in wrinkled khakis. “In China, if you’re rich, you have to look the part,” says Wang Deyuan, who owns one of the top ad agencies in southern China. “You have to show you have money, otherwise no one believes that you’re rich.”

This show-me approach is not a purely modern phenomenon. Lavish displays of wealth have long been an integral part of Chinese society. No banquet is considered a success unless a full table of food is left over — if plates are empty, the host hasn’t ordered enough to sate his guests. Wang knows that judicious strutting can lubricate business dealings. He and his wife, Wang Yanyi, who owns a bustling real estate company, live the high life in Shenzhen, that boomiest of Chinese boomtowns. On weekdays, they work hard and keep the flash in check. Indeed, 35-year-old Wang knows that many of his clients drive Mercedes, so he makes do with an Audi lest he embarrass them by appearing in a ritzier car than theirs.

But on weekends, the Wangs let the money flow, aware that cash buys respect and murmurs of envy from less fortunate friends. One recent Friday, they splashed out for a Cantonese banquet at a members-only eatery followed by aged Scotch and cigars at their favorite nightclub. An evening like this can easily cost them $1,000, but the outlay merely cements their reputation as coruscating icons of Shenzhen’s glitterati. To look good for their nights out, they swoop into Hong Kong for intensive shopping trips. The Hugo Boss and Max Mara stores know them so well they call when a new shipment of clothes arrives. Wang Yanyi’s image is further buffed by spa sessions, body detox therapy and cellulite-removal massage.

The Wangs are part of an alluring demographic, and its rapid emergence has enticed some of the world’s most exclusive brands to China. Giorgio Armani, for example, will open four outlets in Beijing and Shanghai by the end of this year, and purveyors of luxury goods like Mercedes-Benz and Tiffany have similar expansion plans.

But Chinese consumerism often comes sans connoisseurship. A chef at the Door, a velvet-draped Shanghai eatery, remembers one customer ordering the most expensive Chateau Margaux on the wine list, then mixing it with a liberal splash of Sprite. “He just gulped it down, without even tasting the wine,” recalls the chef. Taste matters little when the object is ostentation. At Shanghai’s posh Plaza 66 mall, a clerk at a European fashion house recounts how a middle-aged man demanded to buy the five most expensive things in the store: “After paying for them, he tried to put on a suede coat and a pair of crocodile-leather loafers he’d just bought. I had to tell him they were for women, not men.”

For others, a better way to blow money fast is to go overseas. A decade ago, most Chinese never ventured abroad as tourists because the state issued passports only to a select few. Getting permission for anything other than studying at Harvard or inking a joint-venture deal was nearly impossible. Today, though, Chinese are the fastest-growing bloc of travelers in the world. By 2020, 100 million Chinese are expected to go globe trotting. Mainlanders have already become Thailand’s most numerous tourists and they’ll soon be tops in Australia too. “It used to be the Japanese consumer that we were targeting,” says Siriporn, a jeweler in Bangkok, who has started stocking extra jade and ivory for mainland customers. “But now we are told we have to pay attention to the Chinese, because they have so much money.”

Wang Shi likes the attention he receives abroad. The head of China Vanke, a property development company in Shenzhen, was delighted last month when he saw Munich Airport now has signs in Chinese to help visitors like him through customs. At a five-star hotel in Tokyo, room service offered him a Chinese breakfast complete with rice gruel and soybean milk. “Five years ago, no one overseas cared about pleasing the Chinese,” he says. “Now I feel like the world realizes we matter.”

But for Wang, 51, going abroad was important for another reason: he was able to benchmark himself against other monied people. He noticed that Chinese tourists liked to travel together in nervous clumps led by a fussy tour guide. Westerners, he concluded, traveled alone or in couples. And they didn’t just dutifully walk around cities or hit the gift shops. They bungee jumped, skied, parachuted. “I saw these people and realized that we Chinese don’t really know how to live,” says Wang. “We can take risks in business but not when we’re having fun.”

Inspired, the property magnate went home and decided to become a mountain man. Like many of China’s rich, he had spent so many years working that now all he wanted to do was play. So far, he has climbed all the major peaks in China, along with Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier. Almost every weekend, he takes a few buddies paragliding over the hills surrounding Shenzhen. Wang also started a club for wealthy businessmen to bond over a ski slope or mountain face — instead of a boardroom table or a karaoke mike. The club now has more than 200 members, who gather each year for a weekend of exertion followed by a party teeming with so many connected people that China’s financial press considers it the event of the year. At the most recent confab in July, executives hiked at an alpine resort near Beijing — although, in truth, many skipped the walk to schmooze — then gathered for a swank meal at a hotel where Chairman Mao once summered. “My company is just another company,” Wang says. “But people will remember me as the man who helped Chinese climb mountains.”

Not surprisingly, China’s wealthiest citizens indulge their kids with almost as much zeal as they indulge themselves. Zhou Zhiqin, a pharmaceutical supplier, lavishes attention on her “Little Emperor,” a 13-year-old son who enjoys weekly horseback-riding lessons and unlimited access to the newest computer games. Last year, Zhou even commissioned a $2,400 oil painting of the boy. Although he’s a teenager, her son sleeps in the same room as a maid, lest he kick off his covers in the middle of the night and catch cold. “We had nothing growing up,” says Zhou, 39. “All I want to do is give my son the things he loves, so he knows how much we care about him.” Her son responds, “I know that China was poor before, but I think parents sometimes exaggerate how terrible it was back when they were young.”

For a teen, Zhou’s son puts up fairly patiently with his mother’s fussing over his hair and clothes. But more and more, he wants to hang out with his buddies, and he talks about how great it will be to get an SUV and cruise around on his own. (When her son announces this, you can almost hear Zhou’s mental note: SUV for son when he turns 18.) Letting go won’t be easy for Zhou. To make matters worse, her husband spends most weekends at a golf course, schmoozing with business colleagues and puffing on Dunhill cigars in the clubhouse. To ease the loneliness, Zhou began trying to occupy herself with games of mah-jongg or by going on house-hunting jaunts with friends who, like her, buy up historic Shanghai homes and renovate them in whatever style they fancy at that moment: baroque, Roman, Swedish modern.

When those diversions didn’t work, she tried getting a pet, the current favored accessory of China’s rich. The pet store offered dozens of pedigreed animals, including rare Bur-mese cats, poodles with ears dyed fluorescent colors and house pigs that grow no bigger than a beagle. Zhou settled on a white Pomeranian that cost $1,800 and racks up hundreds more in doggie salon bills each month. But even the pooch wasn’t enough, so Zhou is now pregnant with her second child. Much of China may be bound by a one-child policy, but wealthy couples can easily pay the hefty fines for overprocreating. “If you have money, you can do anything,” says Zhou, holding her eight-month-pregnant stomach. “Even things that are, well, a little bit illegal.”

For centuries, Shaohui, a tiny hamlet in China’s prosperous Fujian province, made its money off succulent mangoes and dragon-eye trees. No longer. Textile mills have transformed the region’s rolling hills, and the rich have invaded too, building sprawling homes throughout the countryside. Just inside Shaohui, Wendie Xu’s one-story bungalow has been replaced by a five-story mansion, courtesy of her husband’s success as a cotton exporter. The house, which she proudly describes as “Los Angeles palace style,” cost $600,000 to build. That’s no small sum in rural China, where the average annual income is less than $300.

Her neighbours still live in a dirt-floor home. But inside Xu’s palace, with its sweeping blue-tinted windows, you can’t smell the mix of manure, coal and sewage that permeates lesser residences. Her family room boasts a massive chandelier, a built-in bar and a TV with 52 inches of viewing pleasure. In the foyer is an immense fountain with garish lights and a metal sculpture dancing in the water.

Yet there’s something unsettling about the place. With her kids away at school and her husband often abroad on business, the house is eerily quiet. Even the TV doesn’t enliven things: Xu still hasn’t figured out how to use the remote correctly. Nor can she turn on the chandelier to brighten things up for fear of short-circuiting the neighborhood electricity. To pass the time, she spends hours in her darkened house reading romance novels.

Only a daily pilgrimage to the local temple soothes her loneliness. “I go to pray for my children,” she says. “I wish they will find fulfillment.” Most of the other worshipers are praying for something simpler: money. But Xu has that, and it isn’t making her happy. “Money doesn’t buy everything,” she says, sitting in her family room without her family. “We all thought it would, but look at me now.”

Such epiphanies are still new in China. But the realization that money may not buy happiness is spreading, fueled in part by an epidemic of divorce that is tearing through China’s nouveaux riches. In Shenzhen, the joke is that the traditional Chinese greeting “Have you eaten yet” has been replaced by “Have you divorced yet?” Though low by Western standards, the divorce rate has doubled over the past decade to 20% of marriages in China’s cities. Researchers at the All-China Women’s Federation estimate the rate may be twice that among wealthier Chinese. Without the old Communist Party neighborhood watchdogs to monitor what is happening in everyone’s bedrooms, affairs have mushroomed. And for many rich men, concubines have become the latest must-have in a life of endless toys and acquisitions.

In the suburbs of Guangzhou and Shanghai, entire “concubine villages” have sprouted up, jammed with beauty salons, karaokes and gyms to entertain the legions of kept women. Tang Ling’s husband, a lumber merchant from the northeastern city of Shenyang, kept three concubines, or at least that’s how many Tang knows about. “He got bored with me, then got bored with each mistress,” she says, sitting in the splendid Beijing apartment she pried out of her husband after their divorce in June. “I think rich people in China have lost their sense of loyalty. They keep searching for something, but everything they find isn’t good enough.”

Still, China’s rich keep searching, for what else is there, really, to do in life? Pan Shiyi, a philosophical real estate developer in Beijing, who has built luxury villas by the Great Wall for China’s Elite, is exploring Taoism as a way to sate his soul. “I think we’ve realized that money is a false god,” says Pan, lounging on the patio of his country retreat north of Beijing. “Houses, cars and other toys don’t bring spiritual contentment.” So what does? Pan, the great-grandson of an opium lord and son of a penniless party flack, shakes his head. He gathers his two toddler sons next to him and kisses each on the head. “I work so much I hardly see my boys,” he says. “When Deng told us to go make money, we never expected that it wouldn’t be all we needed.”

Back in Hangzhou, though, President Huang isn’t convinced that money doesn’t buy it all. “Money is what makes dreams come true,” he muses. “Without money, you don’t count in China.” This summer, the man who owns 22 companies — or, at least, that’s how many Huang remembers owning — was busy drawing up plans to create Venice Town, Swiss Village and other European-themed wonderlands in Hangzhou for tourists to visit and live out their vacation fantasies. Next, he aims to create a mini-Las Vegas in China, complete with casinos and cabaret shows. “Las Vegas is a place made of dreams,” says Huang, showing off his snapshots from a recent trip to the Nevadan oasis. “Imagine something so beautiful sprouting out of a desert. It reminds me of how China developed so quickly out of nothing.”

Not so long ago, Huang himself had nothing. He started out as a cog in the communist machine, toiling away dismally in a state bookstore. But in 1987, he left with a few hundred dollars to his name, determined to fashion a small beach resort on the tropical island of Hainan. That resort spawned many others, and Huang is now a corporate titan, a budding Chinese Rockefeller. “The people who got in early had the most success,” he says of China’s economic boom. “No one else was even thinking about this (kind of) business, so it was completely open.” One day, of course, his luck may run out. But today — feasting on deep-fried eel, braised seaweed and stomach stew in the Red Room of the White House —

Huang is living the Chinese dream. And he’s loving every wretchedly excessive minute of it.

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