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Polo making a comeback among China's elite

The rise of polo in China reveals much about the vast wealth of the country - and the lucky one percent who control it.

Last updated: 02 Aug 2014 11:50
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The Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club has two international standard polo fields, world-class stables, and a lavish clubhouse designed in faux European chateau style [Michael Sullivan/Al Jazeera]

Tianjin, China - At first glance, the Cambridge Challenge polo tournament seemed to replicate a perfect English summer's day.

Eight young players charged their mounts across a bright green field; the thump of hooves into soft turf was broken only by the occasional thwack of a mallet colliding with a small white ball - to send it racing across the ground.

Several hundred guests braved the summer heat to watch 47 polo players compete in 12 matches, spread out over five days. It all led to the final on July 20, when the team from London was finally crowned this year's champion.

But this was no ordinary matchup. Six teams of students came from some of the best-known institutions on both sides of the Atlantic: Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, University of London, and Yale. This was a "who's who" of elite old-world education.

And even more striking than the line-up was the location, for these teams met on a field in Xiqing District on the outskirts of Tianjin - some 100km from Beijing, the political centre of Communist China.

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The rise of polo in China reveals a lot about the country's market today: it speaks to the vast wealth of China's winners - the lucky one percent - and the staggering ambition that has developed here in the past few decades.

The game of emperors and bourgeoisies

Polo, the so-called game of kings, was once the game of Chinese Emperors.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), horseback games were played by officials, soldiers, and civilians. The emperors liked to watch.

However, what remained of the sport in the 1900s soon disappeared under Communist rule. This bourgeoisie sport was not compatible with the mood of the times.

Today, with two international standard polo fields, world-class stables, and a lavish clubhouse designed in faux European chateau style - appearing bourgeoisie does not seem to concern the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club.

"I think our facility is top-notch, it is the best in China, the best in Asia, and perhaps even among the best in the world," said Harvey Lee, vice chairman of Goldin Real Estate Financial Holding, the developer behind the project.

Goldin courted the International Polo Association, bringing events such as the Snow Polo World Cup - one of the world's premier polo tournaments - to Tianjin. They also worked with the European polo world, even British royalty, with the Goldin Group Charity Polo Cup event in the UK and hired international experts, foremost among them Luis Lalor, former president of the Argentine Polo Association.

And as Jim DeAngelis, Yale University's varsity polo coach, told Al Jazeera, all the effort and expense appears to draw attention, recognition, and events.

"It's a tremendous facility that we had to come see to believe. It's really incredible: the quality of horses, the quality of the facility, the organisation," he said.

And yet, by all possible measures, polo remains a minority sport in China - few people watch or play it.

The grand sell

Beyond the polo fields, a series of giant towers reached to the sky amid a flock of metal cranes. Chief among them is Goldin Finance 117, and upon completion in 2015 it will reach a height of 597 metres.

The tower "is part of a much bigger real estate project, called Golden Metropolitan, which includes a central business district, a residential zone, and a polo club", Harvey Lee said.

The entire project consists of multiple skyscrapers, a 6-star hotel, a large theatre complex, multi-million dollar apartments, vast villas in European styles, an international convention centre, and the polo club itself. This is real estate development on the grandest scale.

It is within this context that the investment in polo begins to make more sense. Goldin, first and foremost a real estate developer, has built one of the world's best polo facilities for marketing purposes.

We go after the tip of the wealth pyramid.

- Harvey Lee,Vice Chairman of Goldin Real Estate Financial Holding

"We are not just any real estate developer, we see that our product is lifestyle," Lee said.

A Harvard alumni and former managing director of Goldman Sachs Asia, Lee was blunt about his company's methods.

"We go after the tip of the wealth pyramid. So everything has to be done in a way that attracts this particular group," he said.

And they are certainly a group worth attracting. According to the Hurun Report's 2014 Global Rich List, China now has 358 billionaires, second only to the US. Below them, the number of very wealthy continues to expand. Hurun's 2013 Chinese Millionaire Wealth Report estimated more than a million individuals possess assets exceeding $1.6m or more.

To attract these consumers, Goldin is employing a classic real estate sales tactic, according to Liz Flora of Jing Daily, a website that tracks trends in China's luxury industries.

"A lot of golf courses are built as part of a real estate development. They are professional courses, but the main push is definitely real estate. It makes sense that polo would be used as well," she said.

And real estate was pushed pretty hard.

The on-site sales tent at the Cambridge Challenge, which all guests were initially funnelled through to get to the event, was filled with everything designed to attract cash-rich Chinese millionaires.

Sprawling models of the entire real estate project were rendered in exquisite detail; the walls were adorned with golden framed photos depicting the high life; piles of polo equipment lay artfully arranged like the goods in some high-end boutique.

'Yale in China'

Even the theme - an intervarsity tournament - was part of the marketing plan.

"The audience you see today, most probably don't know much about polo, most are probably watching polo for the first time ... it's not just the polo that the audience wants, they also want that connection point with the schools," said Lee.

Yale has a particular fondness and relationship with China - there are a lot of cross-efforts for education.

-  Liz Brayboy, Yale polo club director

The schools themselves were no doubt very happy to be used in this way. Chinese students are huge business, and they have their own brands to promote.

"There's a very large 'Yale in China' programme," explained Liz Brayboy, the director of the Yale polo programme.

"Yale has a particular fondness and relationship with China - there are a lot of cross-efforts for education".

A report by the Institute of International Education reveals that in 2013 the number of Chinese students enrolled in US institutions reached 235,597. That is 28.7 percent of the total number of international students.

Beyond the salesroom

Through sales and marketing, polo might make a dramatic upswing in popularity in China.

"I don't know, I think it will take another 10 years to see the position of polo in this country... Right now we are more like golf in China 20 years ago," Goldin's Lee said.

Guan Yuexia, a young woman from Hebei province, travelled several hours to reach this event.  She looked excited but sceptical of ever playing polo herself.

"We just bring a kind of spectator-only mentality to watching this sport. I also like to watch badminton - but it is much more suited to my lifestyle, the opportunity to take part is just much greater."

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Al Jazeera
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