ARBOR WEALTH: China's noveau riche


Margaret R. McDowell,

Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 04:42 PM.

There are some amazing residences in South Walton. Gulfront homes in Rosemary Beach are visually striking. Homes in Burnt Pine are gracious and tasteful. The vistas offered by 30A beachfront houses are stunning. None of these, however, rival the castle at San Simeon, Calif.

Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst told architect Julia Morgan in 1916 that he was tired of camping in tents on La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) and requested that she design a “bungalow” there. The result? A castle with 165 rooms, priceless Greek artifacts, Roman statues, Italian marble and tile and exotic animals imported from all over the world. Hollywood stars summered there, socializing with Hearst and his companion, Marion Davies. 

While visiting the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif., I was enthralled by the grandeur, the art, and the magnificent vistas above the Pacific. It is human nature to want to peer into the private world of people for whom price is never a concern.  But I also knew that the property under my feet was later “given” to the state of California, which now operates the castle as a tourist attraction. Hearst spent unspeakable amounts on the castle and even a family fortune like his was hard pressed to pay for its upkeep.

For the past several years, the uber-rich in China have enjoyed a spending spree not dissimilar from that of Mr. Hearst in his heyday. Jewelers and purveyors of luxury items say that they’ve never seen anything like it.

Now, though, The Economist reports in an article entitled “Beyond Bling” that the super wealthy in China are reining in their purchases. “Sales of shark fin, the key ingredient of a soup served at fancy dinners, are down by around 70 percent ... Imports of bottles of Bordeaux costing more than $800 have collapsed,” says the magazine.

The global economic slowdown has shrunk the market for Chinese exports.  And China’s domestic economy has experienced a “soft landing”, which means that its growth is very healthy, but nowhere near the unprecedented levels of economic progress that characterized the last several years there. Millions of newly empowered and Internet-informed Chinese middle classes are objecting to lavish government banquets on the taxpayer dime.

China’s “noveau riche” are adopting the spending habits of the Western rich, who prefer to buy quality, save their money and avoid ostentatious expenditures.  Buicks, not Mercedes, are trending among the jet set there.

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