And Finally

Feeling fruity

Why are tycoons becoming keen farmers?


The classic American apple, the Red Delicious is known by a different term in China where it’s called the ‘snake apple’. It has little to do with serpents, or Eve and the Garden of Eden. Instead the term came from Hong Kong where the suffix ‘cious’ sounds like the word for snake in Cantonese. The name subsequently made its way back to mainland China and stuck.

It’s a reminder that even where the humble apple is concerned, branding is an issue. The topic went viral on the internet recently thanks to the efforts of Tianshui city in Gansu province, as it sought to promote its orchards. Tianshui is an area known in China for its apples where they are already regarded as among the country’s best (even sometimes compared to Fuji apples from Japan). But local farmers still thought they could be better branded in an attempt to drive up sales.

Last month Tianshui decided to boost its profile by appointing SOHO China’s chairman Pan Shiyi as its apple ambassador. Pan – a real estate tycoon with around 16.5 million followers on Sina Weibo – says he is taking on the role as a favour to the farmers of Tianshui, which is his hometown. Thus a new brand has been born: the ‘Pan apple’.

In fact, Tianshui’s apple variety isn’t the first agricultural product to be named after a tycoon. Over the years there has been the ‘Liu kiwifruit’, (named after its grower, Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi), ‘Liu rice’ (grain sold online by 360Buy’s chairman, Liu Qiangdong) and ‘Ding pigs’ (pork produced by NetEase founder Ding Lei).

In most cases, this isn’t about rich elites seeking out bucolic pastimes to escape their busy city lives. For the most part there’s a genuine commercial plan and China Business News says the trend is evidence that the country’s tycoons increasingly view the agriculture sector as “green gold”.

Why so? WiC has written extensively about food safety scares in China. But when a business titan stakes his reputation on an item of fruit and veg, it seems to instill greater consumer confidence in the product’s quality. The celebrity endorsements boost sales and can lead to higher margins.

The most successful celebrity fruit of all are ‘Chu oranges’. Paradoxically it has prospered thanks to its association with a man who built his career as a tobacco mogul, before being thrown into prison.

The oranges are named after 85 year-old Chu Shijian, the man who turned the struggling Red Pagoda brand into China’s most profitable cigarette marque in the 1980s.

Chu’s career ended abruptly in 1998 when he was jailed on corruption charges. Released on medical parole in 2002, he began planting oranges in a mountainous area in Yunnan province. His fruit farms now produce 8,000 tonnes of oranges a year and the China Daily reported this week that ‘Chu oranges’ have become the most coveted fruit in the country this winter. Even though his produce sells for five times the average orange price, demand for Chu’s stock is outstripping supply.

What next, WiC wonders? Perhaps Jack Ma will start growing bananas…

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