Skulling it

One of American’s oldest secret societies is reborn in Shanghai

Skulling it

Very clubbable: Chen Hao

Henry Luce took the nickname ‘Baal’, Averell Harriman was ‘Thor’. George W Bush couldn’t think of a name himself, and so was christened ‘Temporary’.

These and other prominent American men were members of the highly exclusive Skull and Bones society, a Yale University institution founded in 1832. With its home in a neo-gothic hall, the club has taken on mythic status, even featuring in movies like the Good Shepherd, starring Matt Damon and Robert de Niro.

In his history of Time Magazine, author Isaiah Wilner describes the elite organisation that Luce – Time’s founder – was invited to join. “The fifteen campus heroes who made Bones each year graduated with connections so far in excess of what others had acquired that it seemed as if they had attended a school within a school.”

Steeped in history, powerful, prestigious. The Skull and Bones is all these things, and as you will probably have guessed someone in China wants to replicate it. At least that is the vision of Chen Hao, 27, the founder of the Relay China Youth Elite Association.

Chen, who Southern People magazine calls “charismatic”, has attracted around 50 members to his would-be Skull and Bones so far. New joiners are typically in their twenties, and are the sons and daughters of successful business entrepreneurs from the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas. Chen envisages Relay as a society open only to the heirs of rich tycoons: the Y-generation elite who will soon hold power and influence.

Based in Shanghai, Relay also seems to serve a social and psychological purpose, acting as a support network for the sons and daughters of the mega-rich. They all share similar backgrounds – as the offsprings of domineering fathers who built big businesses from nothing in the 1980s and 1990s.

And the heirs are sometimes struggling to handle the patriarchal shadow, discovering that their foreign-educated ideas have little place in the family business.

Chen, whose father built a successful plastics empire in Zhejiang province, comments: “Our biggest challenge is loneliness. So when a group of friends meet and share similar views, we feel warm and safe.”

Relay members are mostly men – by a ratio of four to one. This is not surprising given China’s gender dynamics. It is the sons who have typically been the object of their father’s discipline and control – enduring a mix of tough love that is somewhere between the Spartan and the Bismarckian. The daughters, typically, have enjoyed a more harmonious relationship, as they are less frequently groomed for a role in the family firm.

Of course, that is not always the case. Relay member Xu Taofang surprised her own father, by returning from Singapore with the idea for producing maternity clothing that protected expectant mothers from radiation. He wasn’t too optimistic about his daughter’s product, observed the Southern People Weekly, but he gave her some limited funding nonetheless. Six years later, Xu’s Tianxiang brand now contributes more than 60% of the family firm’s profits.

But Xu’s success story is a little unusual. Other Relay members have got into conflict with their fathers. Especially the sons.

Take 26 year-old Miao Xinying. His father’s Xinfeng Group was founded in 1984 in Wenzhou, and after graduating in Canada, Miao joined the family business. But when he tried to apply a few of his own ideas, he was ignored by the staff and finally vetoed by his father, who described his son’s approach as “inexperienced and idealistic”.

“People think we grew up with silver spoons,” Miao told Southern People Weekly. “But if we do succeed it’s only because of our fathers. If we fail it’s because we are spendthrifts.”

Another Relay man, this time a scion of Shanghai Shangshang Steel Pipe, has also decided the only option was to break away.

Ji Weite remembers a childhood in which he never got his father’s recognition: “He had little patience and didn’t listen to me. Either he was lecturing me or getting mad at me.”

After graduation Ji also joined the family business but felt “suppressed and suffocated” and decided to start a film company – specialising in corporate investor relations – to prove he could be a success on his own terms.

Recent adademic studies depict similar generational conflict. The patriarch tends to think the child is not sensible enough, has overly-radical ideas or is not to be trusted with key decisions. The heir, on the other hand, considers the father overbearing, and incapable of encouragement. Often the offspring would like to reform the business; but for the father, if it isn’t broken why fix it?

Ji says this conflict is often inevitable and it is why Relay came about. But Chen, the society’s founder, acknowledges his members are young and have a lot to learn: “Our most important mission is to study and accumulate the power to carry on the family business,” he says.

A Skull and Bones society then, but definitely one with Chinese characteristics.

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