Chinese chukkas

Why an international polo tournament got hosted in Tianjin

Chinese chukkas

Hurlingham with smog: players compete at the new Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club

For most Chinese, mentions of polo are more likely to bring to mind Ralph Lauren’s ubiquitous shirts rather than the equestrian pastime.

But for China’s new rich, polo as a sport has become distinctly fashionable. No surprise then that the country’s newest and largest polo club hosted China’s first international polo tournament last week.

The Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin lured six of the world’s top teams from England, Argentina, France, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. “We have so many international players from all over the world coming together in this area,” a 23 year-old player on the Hong Kong team told the Shanghai Daily. “I think that it’s a good way to promote polo in China.”

Polo is not new to China, of course. While the game’s origins are reckoned to be in Persia, a variant became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907AD), as indicated by paintings of the time showing men on horseback hitting balls. However, the game faded during the Qing Dynasty when restrictions were placed on playing it.

The polo being played today is largely the brainchild of Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Shearer, two British soldiers who founded the Calcutta Polo Club in 1862. They formalised the rules. Thanks to its popularity with the officer class, the game found its way back to England to be taken up by British aristocrats, as the epitome of class and cachet.

It is a similar association with nobility that first aroused the interest of China’s new rich. City Express reports that the first polo club to open was in Hangzhou in 2007. The Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club members were successful entrepreneurs from around Zhejiang province. To join cost Rmb500,000 ($76,000); but as the newspaper comments, members then needed a polo pony (a further Rmb300,000) and as much as Rmb1 million a year in running costs to be able to compete in the top competitions.

By definition, you had to be pretty rich to play. And for those playing that was part of the attraction. The message was clear: yes, you had to be well-off to play golf, but you had to be super-rich to be a polo enthusiast.

The club began to hold annual events, such as the Royal Salute Polo Gold Cup. In attendance: 35 of the richest billionaires as ranked by the Hurun List. As Nine Dragons Hills manager told City Express “polo is becoming the latest way to show success”.

That mentality was in evidence again at Tianjin’s Goldin Metropolitan Club last week, where snow machines were brought in to give the event an Alpine feel. The six-day tournament attracted 2,000 spectators, with the winning team given a trophy made by Asprey, the jewellers to the British royal family.

“Our main objective is to excite the public in terms of the game of polo,” said Rowland Wong, president of the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club. According to the Wall Street Journal more than 1,300 ponies were imported into China last year versus 300 five years ago – a measure of the growth of interest in equestrian sports such as polo.

How about the Chinese national team? The Worker’s Daily – which as you might imagine is no great fan of such elitist pastimes – quotes a member of China’s Equestrian Association as saying there are only three clubs in the country with regular polo fields, and China didn’t compete for the Goldin Cup, relying instead on Hong Kong for representation. In spite of the recent hoopla, the Worker’s Daily doubts Chinese players will have a serious impact on the polo world anytime soon.

In fact, many in the local media say polo is being promoted less as a sport than as a way to sell real estate. Nine Dragons Hill is part of a property play and its manager is candid enough on his intentions: “We set up the polo club, in addition to our love of polo, to enhance the value of housing projects around it.”

Goldin – a Hong Kong-listed property developer – is equally transparent about its motives. Its polo club – which houses 150 stables – is surrounded by as yet unfinished high-rise apartments and villas. The club’s boss told the Shanghai Daily he was “happy for the club to add value to the real estate that looms over it.”

Guangzhou Daily points out that those who join the polo club enter a world of privilege that extends well beyond Tianjin. “The club will invite members to hunting expeditions in Scotland, access to front row seats for Milan Fashion Week and arrange private jets and yachts around the world.”

A club official summed it up: “Polo is a kind of aristocratic life experience; and our members will enjoy the royal family life.”

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