Asia Life

China’s Nouveau Riche: Truth Exceeds Fiction

Recent Features

Asia Life

China’s Nouveau Riche: Truth Exceeds Fiction

China’s newly minted millionaires are pushing the limits of imagination when it comes to extravagance.

Yesterday we looked at Kevin Kwan’s new novel, Crazy Rich Asians, which dissects in satirical detail the lifestyles of a mega-rich Singaporean family. The story revolves around a wedding so lavish it beggars belief, involving a boys’ choir flown in from Europe, island hopping and a performance by Cirque du Soleil.

These may seem like embellishments, but Kwan was writing from experience. “I did a lot more simplifying and cutting out of the decadence and the excess than I did of adding it on, if you can believe that,” he told Vanity Fair.

Many real life examples from Hong Kong validate Kwan’s point. In the same fashion as the family in Crazy Rich Asians, when heartthrob Tony Leung and actress Carina Lau tied the knot they headed for the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The two-part wedding, with a star studded guest list including film director Wong Kar Wai, was divided into a sober Buddhist ceremony and a glitzier affair in which Lau showed off her HK$10 million Cartier ring. The ceremony set the power couple back $5 million.

Though not as extravagant in terms of locale, in monetary terms, perhaps China’s biggest bash was held by former TVB actress Cathy Tsui and Martin Lee Ka Shing, son of Henderson Land Development’s billionaire founder Lee Siu Gei. The couple flew by private jet (Gulfstream) to Sydney where they invited 150 guests from Hong Kong to attend their ceremony, which was dubbed “the wedding of the century”. The cost: HK$700 million (approximately $90 million).

You can read more about these and other exorbitant Chinese weddings here.

While these outlays of cash are staggering, what’s perhaps even more impressive is the speed with which mainland China’s new rich are playing catch up to the dynasties of wealth that have been built among the diaspora. Again, weddings are a good indicator. Some 10 million weddings take place each year in China, representing a total market of around $57 billion. While the vast majority are of course modest gatherings for family and close friends, some make headlines.

Take a 2011 ceremony held in Chongqing. At the request of his bride-to-be, “Little Wang” ordered a shipment of 99,999 roses directly from growers in the southern city of Kunming – famed for its year-round spring weather. Wang’s charge was simple: wrap 30 sedans with the flowers – a process that took 40 people 10 hours to complete.

In another case involving automobiles, a motorcade of exotic luxury and sports cars rolled through the teeming entrepreneurial city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province as part of a wedding in 2011. A total of 26 specimens were on display, including Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. The ostentatious display cost more than 100 million yuan (approximately $16.3 million).

While mind boggling at first glance, none of this is a surprise after a quick look at some figures, which reveal that weddings are just one of many areas where China’s new rich are flaunting their wealth. This has significant implications for a number of industries, from luxury goods and tourism to real estate and global auctions.

Here’s a startling fact: as of 2012 there were 8,100 billionaires in China, up 600 from the previous year. Further, China was home to some 2.7 million high net worth individuals, with assets of more than $950,000, as of last year. Chinese-owned offshore assets surged 20 percent to $1.2 trillion last year.

At present, Chinese consumers account for 28 percent of the global luxury market and more Gucci and Hermes stores can be found in Hong Kong – a preferred shopping destination for mainlanders – than Paris. Other hotspots that cater specifically to China include South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Macau.

This massive surge in wealth has also catapulted the Chinese to top of the global tourist ranks, with 83 million venturing abroad in 2012, up 18.4 percent from the year prior. Expectations for 2013 are that 94 million Chinese could head overseas.

When they are not bouncing around the globe, the upper crust of China is leaving behind their compatriots’ beloved KFC and Pizza Hut, in favor of “literary feasts” that replicate the lavish cuisine eaten by characters in the Chinese classic, A Dream of Red Mansions, the Financial Times notes. Setting guests back roughly $240 each, these spreads comprise foods simmered in oil from chicken ovaries, air-dried eggplant (for three to five days), twice-boiled, deboned duck tongues; soups made with some ingredients that don’t even have names in English, and much more.

All of this is part of a much bigger picture of wealth on the regional level. Last month it was revealed that six Asian cities were in the world’s top ten in terms of the numbers of millionaire, multimillionaire and billionaire residents, with Tokyo at the top (although on a national basis, China is not surprisingly set to overtake Japan by 2017). Further, Southeast Asia is on the rise as a key luxury market. This is mirrored by Indonesia’s status as the Asian country with the fastest growth in millionaires last year.