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lost in shanghai


A look at the first exhibition polo game in China held at the Nine Dragons Polo Club in Zhejiang Province

From ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) November 16th & 23rd 2007 Print Edition


By Mina Tenison

My life in Shanghai is a bit of a bubble. I lead a life of luxury and convenience that I cannot afford in Los Angeles or New York. I have a housekeeper who comes every afternoon to clean my house, a tutor who daily picks my children up after school and supervises their homework, and a babysitter who always spends the weekend with my children whenever my husband and I need a romantic getaway. Plus, I give my children tennis lessons, music lessons and riding lessons unaffordable in America. I can eat out at a restaurant almost everyday.

I can afford all this because most of my disposable income in Shanghai is not eaten up by the basic necessities such as groceries, auto insurance, and petrol – as it would be in the U.S. I call this a “bubble life” because it’s not based on real status or accumulation of wealth, but on a lift in status I’ve acquired by moving from the U.S. to China, from the dollar to the renminbi. I have arbitraged my currency to gain a higher standard of living in Shanghai. I have no doubt that – as with any other arbitrage -- my window of opportunity will be limited. Eventually the cost of service people – who today make getting a massage, a manicure or a facial very affordable in China -- will become more expensive. In fact, in just the two years I’ve been in China, the exchange rate has been steadily moving against me.

But I’m not the only one living a bubble life. Most of my foreign friends in Shanghai also do. Their lives are decorated by a rotation of chauffeurs, housekeepers, nannies, personal assistants, and tennis and music tutors for their children that they can ill-afford back in their home countries.

Two Sundays ago, we received a call from our English cousin. He announced that he would be arriving in Shanghai to commentate a polo game in Zhejiang. Would we come? A few days later, another invitation came from Rupert Hoogewerf of Hurun Report, the Forbes rich list of China. He was sponsoring a polo match -- would we like to join him?

The location of the polo match was two-hours away at the prestigious new Nine Dragons Polo and Yacht Club, a place we had never heard of. So we looked it up on the Internet and made a few inquiries. Yes, indeed, a few of our friends were members, and they kept their boats there at the Yacht Club. Excited by the promise of this new leisure destination, we immediately hired a car and a driver for the day. We were told that the Duke of Argyll would be present, and some 40 Australian polo ponies would be flown in.

So there we all were, packed into a minivan, prepared with our basket of posh picnic food—champagne, crackers, Brie, sparkling wine, fruit and salami—ready to join in the glories of polo.

The driver of our minivan hit the A9 to Sheshan, took a turn onto the A30, and then headed straight for the A4—all shiny new toll-roads that hailed the advent of efficient modern China.

As soon as we got off the A4, our driver was lost. The gleaming, smooth, high-speed road had suddenly ended and we found ourselves on a bumpy road full of potholes in rustic countryside. Not rustic countryside as in charming shacks and beautiful views, but rustic as in over-sized peasant houses decorated with toilet tiles, welded aluminum bars and blue-tinted glasses. The signage was not clear, and our driver wondered aloud, “Is this the right way?”

None of this fazed us; several years in Shanghai had inured us to this sharp divide between luxury and rustic in China. We have often driven straight through makeshift shacks and kids peeing on the streets to arrive at a cluster of shiny villas with Mercedeses parked next to them. We told the driver to continue. His face lit up, however, when he spotted a gray Maserati ahead. There was only one place it could be heading. “Follow that Maserati,” we told him. He tried his best, but the Maserati quickly zoomed ahead.

We eventually found the gleaming entrance of the Nine Dragons Polo and Yacht Club. Two security guards in starched uniforms saluted us as we drove past the golden gates. We drove up over what used to be a quarry, with a spectacular view of the Hangzhou Bay, and onto the polo grounds staffed by scores of walkie-talkie-toting security guards.

A huge Mercedes-Benz sponsorship sign loomed ahead with two high-priced Benz models ready for test drives. We saw the Maserati again, its owner -- a slim 30-year old Chinese woman with wavy hair, high heels and a stylish cocktail dress --was an obvious V.I.P. The security guards were falling all over themselves to attend to her.

Despite the security, we easily pushed our way through the entrance. We had been told we were on the guest list, but there were only ticket-takers and no guest list. Since as foreigners we looked right for our part, no one tried to stop us. A few behind us were not so lucky -- probably drivers wanting a look, or locals crashing the game. They were brusquely turned away with the wave of a hand.

Once we stepped inside, a huge polo ground adjacent to the sea greeted us. Ladies with expensive, wide-rimmed hats in their polo best and groups of the Chinese wealthy clustered around several sponsorship tents. However, the hats looked a bit forced on many of the ladies, as if this was the first time they had put them on. The international polo groupies were also there in full force, wearing a cross of French Riviera/English Saville Row shirts and trousers. And, we were told, in a hushed voice, that His Grace the Duke of Argyll and Mao Zedong’s granddaughter were both present. What astounded us, though, was what the local “haves” -- the wealthy, multi-millionaire Chinese carefully invited to the game -- looked like. Unless they had all sent their drivers in their stead, they looked no different from those people in ill-fitting jackets at the gate trying to crash the match.

This is the very specific phenomenon of new money in China. Except for the few urbanized Shanghai sophisticates who fly around the world—Paris, Hong Kong, London and New York--to get a crash lesson in luxury, the seriously rich look much like the provincial entrepreneurs or businessmen that they used be. My husband, an adviser to art collectors, has always found that the wealthiest Chinese never look like they have money. Those who show up in Chanel and Prada he immediately discounts; they always turn out to be corporate wives or executives whose net worth is seldom more than a few million dollars—definitely not in the league of serious fine art buyers. The more “countrified” they look, the more my husband takes them as “the real thing.” The other unique aspect about the wealthy in China is that that they don’t adhere to the rules of the international jet set crowd: they show up in expensive restaurants and adults-only venues with unruly children; they arrive late for the opera and concerts; and they drink their red wine with ice and water mixed in.

Sure enough, the sponsorship tents were full of screaming children running amok -- never mind that the polo game was in full force, and that they risked being trampled by the polo ponies. We headed over to the Hurun sponsorship tent, and unfolded our picnic basket to enjoy our champagne and cheese.

Without a doubt, polo is the one sport indelibly linked to the rich. Ralph Lauren, born to Russian-Jewish immigrants from the Bronx, understood this when he named his brand Polo. For many in the West, polo is something that connotes the über-wealthy: we know that the British royal family plays polo, and polo clubs are usually located in the wealthiest towns and cities—Palm Springs, Monte Carlo, Windsor, Cirencester. Only a select few ever get to see polo games since they are almost never televised and are invitation-only. Today the Royal Salute Tournament at the Nine Dragons Polo Club was loudly announcing that polo had finally arrived in China. Ten, fifteen years ago, it had been golf; five years ago, it was Bentleys and Porsches; and now it was polo and vintage wine.

As the game progressed, the environment felt increasingly artificial and surreal. Everybody was trying to look as if he or she was having fun, but between flutes of champagne, shots of whiskey and wide-rimmed hats, the event was beginning to feel strained. The final match between Royal Scotland and Australian Yaloak was sensational, but by then many people had already left. Most memorable was the cleaning crew walking onto the polo field during the intermissions. The laborers hired to remove debris and groom the lawn appeared in their everyday work clothes—the same drab wear of motorcycle messengers and/or vegetable delivery boys; the Nine Dragons Polo Club had forgotten to provide them uniforms. The laborers’ garb showed how little they were really earning, and gave a glimpse of life just outside the polo gates. It was a jarring endnote to the glorious polo match.


The people most disdainful of the bubble life are the truly wealthy internationals who fly in from Europe or the U.S. and resent that their middle-class former neighbors, who could have never afforded several nannies and a driver, are now living a lifestyle that ought to be beyond them. One Parisian who flew in pooh-poohed the friend who had shown up to ferry him away in her chauffeured car, something she could “never” have afforded in Paris, as he eagerly pointed out to me. One Danish father-in-law took me aside and painstakingly explained that my Danish neighbor could certainly not afford a maid, much less two of them, back in Denmark. He didn’t want me to misread her status.

I understand how they feel: I also feel irritated at the false airs I see many expatriates put on. As one British woman put it, “These people who've never had servants are so thrilled to finally have one in China that they can never stop talking about it.” Yet I too am guilty of the same. I indulge in a spending pattern unimaginable to my maid; I wonder what she thinks when she sees how much I have popped on a bottle of wine or a trip to Japan during the Chinese New Year. It must not be too dissimilar to what I felt several years ago when I met up with a friend from London who only travels first class, employs a full-time butler in London, and drinks champagne by the glass as if it were water. The sensation may best be described more as a feeling of wonder than envy: how can some people have so much money?

We left the polo game, unsure of what we were supposed to have witnessed or what it might mean for all of us. The real anxiety came from not knowing where we stand as the financial and class landscape shifts around us. China may have been poor, but right now it has more billionaires than any other country apart from the U.S., according to that very report put out by our friend Hoogewerf. Today I still had entry to the “good life”—the life of champagne and leisure. But soon I might be priced out, and would have to return to my old, mundane life. The economic landscape, whether due to currency revaluation or government regulation, can change very quickly in China.

As the day closed, we headed back to Shanghai on the A9 in our rented minivan, reflecting on the polo game. For many of us it had been the very first we had ever been privileged to attend.

For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE