Animal house

Thanks to China’s growing love of pets a new movie has proven a big hit


Pet project: Zhong Chuxi stars alongside dogs, cats and a pig

When his cat Garlic died, Huang Yu was so heartbroken that he thought he should try to clone its corpse. That unusual expression of grief led him to Sinogene, a commercial pet-cloning company based in Beijing that offered to generate a replica of his beloved pet for Rmb250,000 ($35,000). Last September, through a surrogate mother, Sinogene produced what the state media declared to be the country’s first cloned cat. Huang also named the kitten Garlic (see WiC467).

“In my heart, Garlic is irreplaceable. But Garlic didn’t leave anything for future generations, so I could only choose to clone,” Huang told The New York Times. The China Youth Daily took a sympathetic view: “The intimate connection between pets and people is a result of modern life: more empty-nesters; those of middle-age exposed to a hollow inside; and young people increasingly remaining single. The companionship of pets gives them the opportunity to step out of the shadow of a lonely life.”

With 55 million dogs and 44 million cats as pets, Chinese consumers are sparing no expense on their favourite animals. During the last Singles’ Day shopping bonanza, pet food surpassed infant milk formula as the most popular imported food product (many pet owners don’t trust Chinese brands, believing that imported products are safer and of higher quality). The domestic pet market is believed to have reached Rmb202.4 billion of sales in 2019, up nearly 19% from a year ago. (To put this in perspective, WiC estimates that in 1981 – at the onset of the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ period – Chinese families spent a collective Rmb175.9 billion on groceries. At this time – when food was often in short supply – it would have been considered outlandish to be feeding a pet. That is one of those indicators of how radically China has changed over just four decades.)

Pet fans today are a lucrative demographic in other ways. On New Year’s Eve, a pet-themed family-friendly movie was released and it has dominated the country’s box office, surpassing Ip Man 4: The Finale, a martial arts epic. Adoring, which stars actress Zhong Chuxi and singer-dancer William Chan, has taken over Rmb614 million in ticket sales since its release. The ensemble drama, which is made up of six different but intertwined stories, is about the relationships between people and their animal companions: cats and dogs – as well as a pig. For instance, in one story a cat called 726 becomes the conduit between a father and teenage daughter who struggle to communicate directly. In another plot, a dog is so protective of his owner (played by Zhong) that the canine won’t even let her new husband (Chan) near her.

“Even though the plot is clichéd and there are plenty of loopholes in the screenplay, Adoring is still a very strong commercial film,” wrote China Economic Net. “The timing of the release is also fortuitous. The last thing audiences want, after a long exhausting year, is to spend New Year’s Eve watching some nail-biting or sombre drama. Adoring offers the perfect escapism for those wanting something light, healing and tender.”

To convey the strong bond between the pets and their owners, producers hired two trainers from Hollywood to work with the animal ‘actors’ for three months prior to filming. Casting also took a long time. Producers said they auditioned thousands of animals at Qingdao’s largest pig farm before settling on their ‘leading hog’.

“When it comes to working with pets, our domestic animal trainers are less experienced than those from Hollywood. So by bringing in the trainers, the pet performances are so much more believable and the overall quality of the film is better,” one film critic wrote.

Despite the strong box office Adoring has its share of detractors. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, it scores a middling rating of 6.6. But Adoring has proven so commercially successful that it could solidify a new trend for pet-themed films in China. Last year alone, five pet-themed movies came to cinemas, compared with only two in 2018 and one in 2016. Hollywood’s A Dog’s Purpose also made as much as Rmb600 million at the Chinese box office.

“Looking at the growth rate alone, the pet economy is growing at a pace even faster than the movie box office. Behind the cute pets is an economic powerhouse, so it is only a matter of time before the strength of this pet economy is manifested in the domestic film industry,” reckoned Entertainment Unicorn.

The success of the film also comes at a time when some of the country’s more celebrated pets are starting to attract large social media followings.

On short video platforms like Douyin (known as TikTok outside of China), famous animals like Golden Yolk and Erdou have garnered millions of followers. Erdou, a white cat, endorses everything from cat food to smartphones. Similarly, Keke, the pet dog of Wang Sicong (the son of Wanda Group billionaire Wang Jianlin) is a social media influencer in its own right, with over two million followers on Sina Weibo.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.