Yet Another Way to Mock China’s New Rich: tuhao jin (土豪金), which in modern-day parlance might be translated as “the gold of the uncouth and wealthy.”

OCTOBER 15, 2013, 7:05 PM

Yet Another Way to Mock China’s New Rich

By AMY QIN

When Apple introduced the iPhone 5s in China last month, demand was predictably overwhelming. Less predictable, however, was the online reaction when the gold-colored version of the phone sold out almost instantly. Chinese on the Internet gleefully described the gold phone, by far the most popular of the three colors available, as tuhao jin (土豪金), which in modern-day parlance might be translated as “the gold of the uncouth and wealthy.” Used to connote derision for the garish and excessive tastes of China’s new rich, the term tuhao has since gone viral, yielding more than 24.2 million search results on Sina Weibo, China’s popular microblog platform, as of Tuesday afternoon.The phrase is suddenly being used to poke fun at everything from gold-plated luxury cars to the opulent interior of a Chongqing school to, most recently, the golden exterior of the People’s Daily office tower, currently under construction in Beijing. (On Weibo, one user mocked the building, a striking phallic colossus, exclaiming, “Wow! What a massive tuhao jin…”)

Tuhao isn’t a new term. Combining the character tu, which means dirt or soil, with the character hao, which can mean despotic or bullying, it is translated in many dictionaries simply as “local tyrant.” Until recently, the phrase had been most commonly associated with a popular slogan used by the Communists during the 1930s: da tuhao, fen tian di (打土豪、分田地), meaning “overthrow the local tyrants and divide the land.”

But in a bit of clever wordplay — a national pastime in China — Internet users have managed to deploy this traditional term with Marxist overtones against the new class of wealthy businessmen and officials, and their relatives, who are thriving in what is still supposed to be a socialist nation marching toward an egalitarian utopia. The tu now draws on its colloquial use as a synonym for unrefined or vulgar, and hao picks up a new tone from the Chinese phrase fuhao (富豪), which means rich and powerful.

Thus, in a single stroke, tuhao links the crass nouveau riche benefiting from Communist rule in modern China with the cruel feudal landlords of pre-revolutionary China whom the Communists promised to wipe out generations ago.

Tuhao is unique among the vernacular expressions used to describe China’s new rich for its biting emphasis on the uncouth ways of country folk. It can be more lighthearted than the term baofahu (暴发户), literally “break-out household,” which suggests upstarts who have suddenly struck it rich but lack culture and sophistication. And it is more general in scope than mei laoban (煤老板), or “coal bosses,” referring to those who became millionaires after the privatization of coal mines in the provinces. (The coal bosses’ reputation for profligacy and boorishness is best captured in a 2010 story about one particularly formidable coal boss who paid a lunch bill of 200,000 renminbi, or more than $32,000, entirely with 1 renminbi notes after a quarrel with the restaurant’s servers.)

Tuhao seems to have little in common with the term wanyuanhu (万元户), or “ten-thousand renminbi household,” which was used in the 1980s to describe families with annual income of at least 10,000 renminbi, or about $1,600. That previously aspirational phrase now seems rather quaint, especially when considered against a Boston Consulting Group study this year that reported China boasts more than 1.3 million households with “assets under management” worth at least $1 million. The report ranked China behind only the United States and Japan for the number of such millionaire households.

But tuhao can be found outside China as well. After Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic extravaganza “The Great Gatsby” hit theaters in China at the end of August, Chinese filmgoers were quick to attach the label to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby, the millionaire who is later revealed to have had an impoverished childhood. On Douban, a popular online social network, tuhao shows up repeatedly in user reviews of the film. “Oh, my tuhaofriend Gatsby,” wrote one user. “The sad melody of a tuhao romance,” wrote another. And, in what may have been the pithiest summary of the film: “Tuhaos apparently can never become nobility.”

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Bamboo Innovator Institute is set up to establish the thought leadership of resilient value creators around the world. KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (www.moatreport.com), a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia. The Moat Report is developed together with our European partners The Manual of Ideas (www.manualofideas.com), the idea-oriented acclaimed monthly research publication for institutional and private investors. The MRA’s paid-subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities and savvy private individual investors. KB has presented his thought leadership as a keynote speaker in global investing conferences. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, macroeconomic and industry trends in Singapore, HK and China. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm since 2002. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Mirae Asset Global Investments, Korea’s largest mutual fund company. He holds a Masters in Finance and degrees in Accountancy and Business Management, summa cum laude, from the Singapore Management University (SMU). He had published cutting-edge empirical research in the Special Issue of Istanbul Stock Exchange 25th Year Anniversary of the Boğaziçi Journal, Review of Social and Economic Studies, as well as wrote articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media. KB is currently a faculty member at the School of Accountancy, Singapore Management University, where he teaches accounting courses that include Management Accounting and Accounting Fraud in Asia.

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