China has the second highest population of millionaires in the world – just behind the United States. Their middle class is rapidly growing as well, reaching a population of over 300 million. As this economic boom increases social mobility amongst China’s vast populace, the rest of society is looking down upon those who have quickly moved higher up, known as tuhao.
Tuhao (土豪), a recently coined slang term, roughly translates to nouveau riche. (Literally, tu means dirt; hao means splendor.) Those with newfound money are seen as tacky and uncultured. Upon Apple’s unveiling of the gold iPhone 5s in China, it was instantly dubbed tuhao gold – a flashy display of wealth, lacking taste. This phenomenon is so widespread it may even be defined in the Oxford Dictionary in the near future. Much like the fictional Jay Gatsby of the roaring twenties, this class of new money shows off their wealth with grandiose displays of lavish spending.
To these members of the upper class, designer items are not an indication of fashion sense or style – they are purely status symbols. Whether they are leopard print shoes from Dolce and Gabbana or a logo-saturated Gucci bag, a tuhao will buy it. It does not matter what the actual product is, it is just about what is very visibly designer and luxurious. I have seen the frivolous spending habits of tuhao women firsthand. They travel from thousands of miles away to New York’s Woodbury Common Premium Outlets equipped with check-in sized suitcases to fit in every logo-embossed purse and pair of shoes in sight. Buses filled with Chinese tourists unload and queue up in front of Tory Burch and Coach; you would think that they’re lining up for a club with the presence of roped-off sections and guards. Thousands of dollars later, their suitcases are packed to the brim and they have even more shopping bags worthy of name-dropping still hanging off of their arms.
More locally, Shanghai’s hottest nightclubs are another breeding ground for tuhao. Go out on a Friday night and you can spot them all over MYST or M1NT. They are the exclusive group sitting behind a velvet-roped VIP table surrounded by boatloads of Dom Perignon champagne. Forget the standard alcohol and mixers, only the most expensive items on the menu will do. Even small groups of three will order by the boatload just to prove that they can afford it, never mind the fact that they ordered five times the amount they needed. Ordering the most high-end alcohol on the menu guarantees an attention-grabbing scene. All eyes divert their attention towards the train of bottles topped with sparklers, accompanied by flashy showgirls. And in my own encounters, I have seen these types of people sit around and proceed to share photos of it all on WeChat instead of actually consuming it. Because drinking a 3,000 RMB bottle of champagne only matters if it makes your entire contact list jealous, right?
But why is there a need for such obvious displays of wealth? Owning one Ferrari is not enough – they need one in every color. Not surprisingly, it has been reported that a woman from the province of Anhui gave her future son-in-law a Bentley worth 4 million RMB as a wedding gift. These ostentatious actions seem to draw from insecurity – a need to always be better than the next person. Being “one in a million” in China does not imply uniqueness, but rather, you would need to be “one in six billion” in order to stand out.
The concept of “face” (面子) in China emphasizes the importance of reputation and dignity to the individual. This notion influences one’s prestige in all aspects of life: friends, family, work, and overall society. One’s status directly correlates to respect received from peers. So to the tuhao of China, racking up purchases will help them gain further esteem. Their pre-tuhao humble roots are not their most accomplished trait, so they attempt to compensate with ostentatiousness to prove their contrastingly current success and status. Buying those boatloads of champagne may not necessarily be making them happy, but it gains the satisfaction of others, which validates the action.
So, although this appearance of wealth and splendor would put one above others economically, it has a larger social impact on these upper class members themselves. Stigmatized for their gaudy spending habits and pressured to measure up to the rest of their rich friends lead to their insecurity. In turn, the solution to curing that discomfort would be spending more money, thus leaving them in a vicious cycle. Money cannot buy happiness – but it can buy “face”, which is probably more important in China anyway.
This article was written by Tatiana Bautista. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Nicole Chan