Traditionally, no trip to Australia is complete without a snap with a koala bear. But for Chinese tourists, the allure of the eucalyptus-eating marsupial seems to have been eclipsed by a purple-coloured teddy.
Since last July, Chinese consumers have been buying up Bobbie Bear teddies in droves. Sold by the Bridestowe Lavender Estate in Tasmania (the teddy is stuffed with a mix of lavender and wheat), Bobbie Bears have become one of the most sought-after souvenirs for Chinese tourists (one saying doing the rounds on weibo: “If you haven’t heard of Bobbie Bear, you haven’t been to Australia”).
Visitor numbers to the farm in Tasmania – 80% of them from China – have nearly tripled in six years to 500 people a day in 2013. And Robert Ravens, Bridestowe’s managing director, says demand for Bobbies, which cost about Rmb300 ($48) each, is so strong that he is having to ration sales to one per customer (sales of the bears via the farm’s website have been suspended too).
“Our phone system has gone into meltdown. We can’t put Bobbie on the internet anymore because the demand just overwhelms our ability to supply on a daily basis. People are using their friends and close contacts. Pressure is brought on us through all sorts of channels just to acquire one, or a thousand, of these bears. It’s become a mania,” Ravens told Forbes. He claims that people were even hacking into the website to place orders.
Ravens has now hired four extra staff to help hand-stuff the bears (30,000 were made last year, up from 3,500 in 2011). “We’re not aiming to dominate the world of fluffy bears. Our business is fine lavender,” Ravens explained to the Wall Street Journal. “But somehow we’ve tapped the cultural psyche of 30 year-old Chinese ladies.”
What sparked the phenomenon? Bobbie Bear became an overnight sensation after ‘Football Babe’ Zhang Xinyu (see Red Star in issue 222) posted a photo of herself with the bear on weibo. “The ideal bedtime companion for a cold Shanghai night,” she told her 9 million followers.
Other celebrities then followed suit. Actresses Fan Bingbing and Sun Li both posted pictures hugging Bobbies (Fan has about 8 million weibo devotees, while Sun is followed by 10.4 million.)
Bobbie is also popular because of his medicinal properties, his fans claim. Apparently, zapping him in a microwave turns him into a hot water bottle. The fine lavender in his belly eases muscle pain and even insomnia.
Naturally, Bobbie Bear mania has led to rampant counterfeiting. The Qianjiang Evening News says that a search for ‘Bobbie Bear’ on Taobao, China’s largest consumer e-commerce site, turns up 3,000 results ranging from a Rmb10 product to one costing Rmb400.
Ravens says that the majority sold online are fake and a look at some of the comments on Taobao shows that customers aren’t happy with the quality of many of the candidates. “The bear smells funny,” one buyer complains.
One entrepreneur has gone further to capitalise on the Bobbie Bear boom. Earlier this year, celebrity comedian Guo Degang bought a farm in the Australian state of Victoria and began buying up lavender. He has also bought the rights to use the name of another farm for his own bear label. “I discovered on the internet there are a lot of counterfeits of the Australian lavender bear. Indeed, many of them are fake but the teddy bears from Victoria are genuine. I can guarantee that because I made them,” Guo told Sohu Entertainment.
But this week disaster struck for Bobbie Bear enthusiasts after China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine banned imports after local officials found traces of bacteria in the wheat in the animal’s belly, reports Yangcheng Evening News. Officials say prolonged skin contact with Bobbie could cause skin infections and allergies.
Not everyone sounds worried: “Once you get the bear, just put it in the microwave for a little and it will kill any germs,” one Taobao vendor told Beijing Morning News.
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