The capitalist west is far more egalitarian than Communist China. This irony can come as quite a shock to the innocent expat. Be prepared !
In the west we are often embarrassed by the mere mention of money. Why is that ? Does our humility lie in our Christian roots ? I doubt it. In feudal England we appeared to be quite high on religion yet humility clearly wasn’t in abundant supply.
So why do we shy away from displays of wealth whilst the Chinese appear to revel in ostentatious consumption ? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years.
As far as I can see, there are two major reasons. Firstly, we have a democratic tradition, they do not. Democracy is undoubtedly flawed however there can be no denying that it has resulted in significant redistributions of wealth. Not only has this resulted in a more egalitarian culture, but it has also generated an underlying fear amongst the “haves”. A single labourer has the same power at the ballot as a factory owner. The “haves” no only too well that the “have nots” who greatly outnumber them can elect a government who through taxes can squeeze the rich till the pips squeak. The “haves” in trepidation ask themselves “how on earth are we to hold on to our advantages “.
Put simply the “haves” quickly learnt that their self preservation lay in not antagonising the large numbers who did not share their advantages. In short, do not flaunt your wealth, appear humble and modest. Keep our heads down and we might get away with it !
By contrast, in China, where the “lucky” poor are eternally represented a benign Communist government, there is obviously no need for democracy. The consequence ? The “have nots” have virtually zero political power and therefore, the “haves” have little fear of wealth redistribution. Let’s not forget that Communist cadres are through blood and marriage irrevocably intertwined with the commercial elite and therefore the “benign” government in reality represents the “haves” to the exclusion of the “have nots”. Furthermore, with the governments monopoly of the media they can also ensure that the vast majority of the excesses of the party princesses and princelings never sees the light of day. The result ? “Curb our excesses ? Why ? Let’s have a ball !”
The other reason for western apparent humility versus Chinese ostentation is due I think to the restraining effect of old money. In our part of the world, in its jealousy of newly acquired wealth, old money seeks to temper the excesses of the nouveau riche. In short, the message resounds, “if you want to join or exclusive club you’d learn our ancient manners, curb your excesses and for God’s sake stop waving that wad around !” The nouveau riche don’t want to be laughed at, they want to be accepted so they learn the rules, quieten down and eventually gain acceptance to the club.
In China however there is no ‘old money’. Mao made sure of that ! So when one is lucky enough to acquire wealth, who is there to show you how one should behave ? Well, no one. There are no blue bloods and consequently the nouveau riche are free and unfettered. What’s the result ? A nation of Harry Enfield ‘Loadsamoneys !’ ? Well, at the risk of sounding judgemental, yes.
We understated western expats can be quite taken aback by the many shows of wealth. The neighbour across the road from us struggled to park all of his cars outside his villa. There was the gleaming Bentley, the Dodge Viper, the silver Mercedes and the the 7series BMW. He had no children. It was just him and his wife yet he felt the need for 4 high end cars to be parked on show outside of his house ! I often admired the Dodge Viper as I parked up my 6 year old Daewoo van and also felt myself lamenting the waste of it all. A top performance sports car in a bumper to bumper traffic metropolis where you’re lucky to hit 30 mph. A little like the sadness you feel on seeing a cheetah pacing a small pen at the the zoo.
My daughter’s friend Aleena lived nearby on the compound. Her mother announced to my wife that they had just bought the house next door to theirs for her husband’s parents. It cost 2 million pounds but they were not happy with it so they were going to knock it down and rebuild it !
She followed this up by telling us that they were going to link the two houses with an underground passageway and later surpassed herself by telling Heather that they were going to build an underground swimming pool ! Heather replied with a “Wow ! You must be really keen about swimming !” to which she replied “Well not really. My husband and I don’t really like swimming but we thought we’d build a pool for Aleena as she likes to swim occasionally.
On hearing this tale relayed by my wife a few times I was sceptical to say the least. “It’s just bravado” I’d exclaim. You’ll see. It’s just showing off. Anyway, in the following 6 months we heard no more about this project and I felt sure my scepticism had proved well founded however, on picking up my daughter Isabel from their house one night, I was invited in for a cup of tea. After admiring the many chandeliered rooms I ventured “So you decided against the pool in the end ?”.
“Oh no, we put in the pool. Do you want to take a look ?”… Aleena’s mother replied.
They had indeed, to my amazement installed, a pool beneath the house. It was 30 metres long and enjoyed changing rooms, a plunge pool and a sauna ! Childlike, unable to contain my excitement, “it’s fantastic !” I exclaimed.
“Yes, it’s a pity” replied Aleena’s mother. “Aleena’s not so interested in swimming now so we don’t use it….”
When we first arrived back in 2004, there were a few decrepit mansions running along the one end of our compound. I was told that the American ambassador, many years back, had once inhabited one of these. He had, apparently, moved out hurriedly on discovering that he was the victim of surveillance from the nearby government controlled Xi Jiao Guest House.
At some time in 2006 these old decaying mansions were razed and quite quickly replaced by new extravagant estates for the habitation of some of China’s new mega wealthy elite.
Quite fortuitously, my Chinese stepmother knew the mother of a lady who had just moved in to one of these new ‘chateaux’ and she asked Heather and I whether we’d like to be introduced and to take a look around. It all sounded rather crass and unbecoming. What ? To wander around some strangers house ? Cooing and sighing like some hicks from the sticks ?
“Yes, that would be great Fong” I replied. “How soon can you arrange it ?”.
Their abode had 1,200 sq metre internal floor space and God knows how much external. On arrival I was surprised to see just the one Rolls Royce in the drive. A bit understated I thought… “Oh the other cars are in the underground car park we built..” explained our host who was named Fu Hua.
Fu Hua was a “self made man” in his late 30’s. He had his fingers in a number of commercial pies. Nothing to specific. I later found out that he had actually inherited 80 plus million from a Taiwanese grandfather but that’s by the by.
On the groundfloor we marvelled at his massive indoor cinema. “It could sit 120 people and show any film he liked”. I just kept thinking this house is a little large for himself, his wife and his 8 year old daughter.
He then showed us the kitchen. It was immaculate and had a staff of 5. Very impressive I thought, but 5 staff to feed just 3 people. What if you fancy going out for a chow mein ? What would the staff do then ? Just wait around ? All seems a tad excessive. Our host then asked if we wanted to see the other kitchen. “Other kitchen ?, What do you mean ?”
“You only look at Chinese kitchen. We also have other kitchen. A western kitchen for when we want western food….” Fu Hua explained.
Yes of course. Who in his right mind would only have just the one type of kitchen with one type of kitchen staff ! I felt such a fool. Needless to say, we were shown the ‘western kitchen’ complete with a further 4 full time staff, trained we were told in the skill of producing western cuisine….
The rest of the tour pretty much blurred in to one. After you are shown your 4th or 5th gold and silver chandeliered room complete with ornate Queen Anne furniture you tend to lose focus. Our interest was aroused however when on the 3rd floor we got to tour his 8 year old daughter’s bedroom. Heather was stunned to discover that the girl’s dressing area was bigger than the entire upstairs of our home (which included 4 bedrooms) !
We politely shook hands at completion of the tour and headed home. Our reflections ? Yes, the sheer excess was impressive. However I couldn’t help wondering if Fu Hua and his like, were just the victims of their own vanity. The house did not look comfortable and certainly didn’t feel like a home. Were the super indulgent Chinese, in living their lives to impress others, in reality losing out on a lot of the simpler pleasures that those who instead live for themselves get to enjoy. Where for example were the relaxed social intimacies ?
My step mother later explained that Fu Hua’s “wife” was not really his wife. His real wife was at their house in Australia with his other children. “So will he divorce her and marry his woman in Shanghai then ?” I asked….
“Oh no. His wife in Sydney is his first wife. Very important. He won’t divorce her ! No. The “wife” in Shanghai is a less important wife……What we call a concubine….”
I couldn’t take it in. So this multiple wife and concubine business that we associate with imperial Chinese dynasties, is still going strong ! It suddenly occurred to me that Fu Hua might have other mansions in other Chinese cities complete with multiple kitchen staffs, further wives and further children. I thought how stressful my one wife and three children could prove. I didn’t envy him.
Another thought struck me hard. Whilst neighbours in my compound were building underground swimming pools for their disinterested daughters or worrying whether they should utilise their western or their Chinese kitchen staff this evening, other Chinese from the provinces were huddled against the cold, trying to get to sleep in cardboard boxes, in Hami Rd, just outside our compound walls.
And another strange thing. The above extreme contrast in fortune can hit the western expat as extremely harsh. Tragic even. However, to the majority of Chinese, it is just an unremarkable fact of life…..