Fame and wealth have proven a mixed blessing to China’s most famous inventor, whose herbal lotion for baldness has swept Asia.
Zhao Zhangguang is driven to his Beijing factory in a black Mercedes and feted as a hero by the hairless of Japan and Southeast Asia and by China’s leaders. He earned $25 million in foreign currency last year from his 1974 invention.
But the burden of his success is heavy. “You are under too much mental pressure,” a Chinese doctor told him recently. “If you do not handle it well, you will go out of your mind.”
Nevertheless Zhao, who has become a celebrity for the formula he claims will cure baldness, is determined to spread the good news to balding scalps around the world.
“My dream is that by the year 2000 I will sell my medicine everywhere where there are bald people,” he says.
Asked if he is the richest man in China, as many believe, Zhao smiles modestly. “I don’t know. I don’t care about money,” he says. “I care about my work.”
He produces from his desk a newly designed, seductive purple bottle with his picture on it, of his famed “101" lotion--named for the 101 experiments he carried out to find the formula.
A picture of Zhao shaking hands with a beaming Vice Premier Tian Jiyun adorns his company office in the prestigious Beijing Hotel, along with photographs of crowns, European and Asian, whose nakedness has allegedly been cured by “101.”
Zhao is an unlikely candidate for stardom in Communist China where individual initiative is often buried beneath a crushing bureaucracy and ethos of social conformity.
Standing just 5 feet tall, he is the farmer son of an herb doctor and speaks with the thick accent of his native Leqing county on the southeast coast.
Zhao’s success has brought some unusual problems. He is plagued by demands for money, sometimes together with a threat of suicide if it is not paid, and the market is swamped with phony imitations of “101.”
Hong Kong newspapers have carried advertisements from rival companies claiming to be sole agent for the real “101.”
There are more than 30 fake “101" brands in Hong Kong alone, many marketed by people claiming to be Zhao’s teacher, friend, daughter or wife and offering free sets of the table game mah-jongg for those who make large purchases.
Zhu Fengli, the director of another hair liniment factory in Zhao’s hometown, also claims to have invented “101.”
Everyone is trying to cash in. A photographer looking for pictures of patients trying “101" at Peking’s Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital was asked for a fee of $1,000.
To combat the fakes, Zhao announced recently that he would set up a new company to run his three factories and cut the number of trading companies allowed to export the oil from 25 to three, with only one sales agent per country.
A salesman in Beijing’s Friendship Store said it sold about 40 bottles a day at $65 each in January, the low season for tourists, against $1,000 a day at the peak last spring.
Aides say Zhao has given away more than $1.35 million, equivalent to a year’s pay for more than 3,000 average Chinese city workers.
One petitioner threatened to kill himself if Zhao did not give him money to pay off heavy debts. He called the millionaire inventor “Buddha Zhao” and said Zhao would go straight to paradise if he paid.
Zhao began his research because there was a high rate of baldness in his hometown among both men and women, leading to tragedies like one in which a young woman who became bald shortly before her wedding, the Peking Daily recounted.
The groom canceled the wedding. On her way to a Shanghai hospital for treatment, the wind blew off her hat, exposing her “monk’s head” and provoking scorn and ridicule from passers-by “that stung her to the heart,” it said.
On her return home she took poison but was rescued by her mother and taken to Zhao’s clinic. She knelt in front of Zhao, tears streaming down her face, saying: “I beg you, find a way to cure my baldness.”