As China’s capitalist economy has soared and the ultra-wealthy look for ways to spend, polo calls to the nation’s ‘new nobility.’
Next to buffet tables groaning with spare ribs and stir-fried noodles, the Buenos Aires Marching Band — splendid in red, white and blue regalia — tuned up for its halftime performance at the Snow Polo World Cup 2014.
Elsewhere in the clubhouse, a shiny, white, life-size horse mannequin stood harnessed to a red-and-gold carriage straight out of a Cinderella storybook. At the wine bar showcasing bottles from France and Napa Valley's Sloan Estate, a quartet of foreigners belted out "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)."
Upstairs, VIPs, including the ambassadors from Chile and Argentina, sipped Champagne and grazed on foie gras, Peking duck and Spanish jamon. Outside, on a polo field covered with man-made snow, Team England was riding to victory over Chile in semifinals of the 10-day, 12-team tournament.
"I was really surprised to come here the first time and find all this," said Guillermo Terrera, an Argentine who suited up for the three-man Hong Kong China squad (alongside another Argentine and a Brit). "The organization is first-class."
Though China's association with the sport can be traced back more than a millennium, it fell out of favor for centuries, and there were no polo venues on the mainland a decade ago. As the country's capitalist economy has soared and the nation has cast off Mao-era proscriptions against bourgeois pursuits, about half a dozen polo clubs have opened in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.
After taking up hobbies like golf and sports cars, China's 1%-ers are looking for new exotic diversions, and places like the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club are happy to oblige — for a price.
Basic memberships to the club — where "the new nobility gathers," according to the brochure — start at $165,000. Or, if you've got plenty to spare, just buy a mansion in the luxury community next door (built by the same developer) and you'll be invited into the elite ranks gratis.
"Be sure to visit the pavilion on your way out and see the wonderful villas here at Fortune Heights!" the polo announcer boomed during a break in the action.
Among the homes that have just gone on sale at the new 2,000-unit development are apartments priced from $1 million to $5 million and stand-alone villas of 11,000 to 60,000 square feet. (Asking price for the top-end mega-mansion? North of $90 million.)
New-home sales in China hit a record $1.1 trillion last year, the government said, up 27% over 2012, and luxury home builders are forecasting strong demand this year. Tianjin-based Sunac China Holdings, for example, said recently that its sales jumped 61% in 2013 over a year earlier, and it expects a 28% increase this year, to $11 billion.
Despite warnings of a bubble, many Chinese still see housing as an investment with greater upside potential than low-yielding bank deposits and poorly performing stocks. (The Shanghai composite stock index fell about 35% between the end of 2009 and the end of 2013.) Although the government has adopted some new rules to try to curb real estate speculation, builders like Sunac say limits on supply will keep prices high.
Still, convincing China's ultra-wealthy to shell out millions for a palace in a subdivision on the outskirts of a city like Tianjin, 75 miles southeast of Beijing, takes more than swimming pools, home gyms, saunas, walk-in humidors, wine cellars, mah-jongg rooms and granite-walled underground garages for 10 cars. (Yes, all are available at Fortune Heights.)
A survey released this month by the Hurun Report, which compiles an annual China Rich List, found that 64% of Chinese high-net-worth individuals want to emigrate, up from 60% last year. The U.S. is the destination of choice, followed by Europe and Canada. Chinese investors are snapping up homes abroad, with London's Guardian newspaper reporting this month that demand from Chinese buyers was helping drive prices of British country estates and farmland to a record high of $11,400 an acre.
So the developer behind Fortune Heights, the Hong Kong-based Goldin Group — a conglomerate with businesses including consumer electronics, financial services and vineyards, including Sloan — is peddling turnkey entree into a new aristocratic realm, no need to fly all the way to West Sussex. All homeowners are granted membership in what the brochure calls "China's largest and most prestigious polo club."
"Our product, in one word, is lifestyle. We sell lifestyle," said Harvey Lee, a UC Berkeley graduate who is vice chairman of Goldin Real Estate Financial Holdings. "What we want to do is sell to the tip of the wealth pyramid. That is our target client. So that's why you see polo, wine and real estate development like this. This is the common link."
Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club offers an exotic diversion for China's wealthy.
John Fisher, a Brit who serves as year-round director of stable operations at the Tianjin club, says that although there are challenges in bringing polo to China — such as animal welfare protocols and language barriers — the sport has a bright future in the nation.
"What they're doing here is amazing," said Fisher, who played on the Hong Kong China team at the recent tournament. "Everything here is bigger and better."
The club plans to host three other polo events this year, including a summer inter-varsity tournament with teams from U.S. and British schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge.
So far, the club has more ponies (200) than members (about 60), and is buying 80 more horses from abroad this year (much to the delight of the ambassador from Argentina). The club will eventually boast three fields as well as an indoor arena, where even the specially engineered sand is imported from Britain.
If it sounds like a major outlay, it's a drop in the bucket considering the $10 billion that Lee said Goldin is spending on the entire Tianjin development. Besides the homes, the polo club and a 167-room private hotel for club members, the company is building 10 office towers and a 117-story, 1,958-foot skyscraper (the third-tallest in China), due to be completed by 2016.
Even locals who have no hope of affording a home at Fortune Heights seem taken with the idea of a polo mecca in their midst.
"In this country, there's nothing else like this place," said Ma Cengkun, a retired engineer from Tianjin who has become well acquainted with the sport after having been invited to several events by a friend who works at the complex.
"Before, this was just some kind of farmland," said Ma, dressed smartly in a blue beret and black leather jacket for the final day of the World Cup, where Team England beat the Hong Kong China squad. "The atmosphere here is really nice."
The Tianjin tournament, sanctioned by the Federation of International Polo, is one of only a few snow polo competitions in the world. (St. Moritz and Aspen also host events.)
Lee says snow polo is ideal for newcomers, since the field is half the normal size, the action is slower, and the bright orange ball is twice as large as the one used when playing on grass, making the game easier to follow. A massive video screen also helps.
Sara Jane Ho, founder of the high-end Beijing finishing school Institute Sarita, took a group of 50 to Tianjin in mid-January to learn more.
We have a class called Introduction to Noble or Expensive Sports.”
— Founder of a finishing school
"We have a class called Introduction to Noble or Expensive Sports. So we teach our clients how to understand a game of golf, horse riding, dressage, polo, skiing — we break down the mechanics of it," she said. "A lot of them are just completely clueless."
Ho's seminar covers the history of polo, its rules and equipment, its connection to royalty and even how to dress as a spectator.
"What Chinese people struggle with most with polo is what to wear. A lot of Chinese men, they think that a suit is the answer to everything. They don't know how to do smart-casual occasions. And for Chinese women … we have a very meticulous handout. For example, no stilettos."
After their afternoon in VIP seats, Ho said, several of the women expressed interest in Tianjin's summer polo camp for their children.
"Now that Chinese people are rich, they are trying to adopt a high measure of quality of life. They are holding themselves to higher standards," she said. "They also want to earn the respect of other people around the world."
Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.