Stephanie Zhou, a 34-year-old designer and boutique owner in Shanghai, has a secret second job, making money hand over fist. Once a season she buys fashions for men and women, coordinates them in sets and categories them as casual wear, evening wear, street wear and so on. Sometimes, she is paid to shop overseas for the latest luxury brands.
Her secret clients are a handful of tuhao (土豪), or nouveau riche. The term has been transformed over the years from one of loathing and disgust to one of mild mockery, even used by tuhao people themselves in a self-deprecating way.
Tu means land and it often refers to rural people with little education, manners or taste. Hao means wealthy. Together, the term refers to people who have recently acquired wealth and flaunt it in ostentatious, tasteless ways.
In the early 20th century, it acquired new meanings when the Communist movement against oppressor landlords spread across the nation. People shouted “Defeat tuhao and share the land!” Everyone was afraid to be labeled tuhao.
Zhou says her clients include business men and women from rural areas, whose enterprises often support entire towns in Sichuan, Shanxi and Hebei Provinces.
“My job is both easy and difficult. Their preference is easy to understand. They will buy anything that is limited edition, flashy and contains gold. It is difficult because it’s virtually impossible to change their taste.
“I get paid very well, but I haven’t wanted other people to know about it. I was a bit ashamed,” Zhou tells Shanghai Daily. “Dressing extremely wealthy people with horrible taste isn’t something that I want to put in my design portfolio. And I was worried some of my online shop customers might doubt my taste if they knew I chose clothes for tuhao.”
She has been re-considering, however, thinking it may actually boost her other business and attract more tuhao to reveal, even promote her other vocation as a personal shopper.
Since September — around the same time when iPhone 5S was released — the term tuhao has been reincarnated on the Internet, stripped of its negative and political connotations.
It has become a popular buzzword, used lightheartedly, and with a bit of envy, to describe extravagant people and their luxury possessions.
“I’ve been considering whether to use ‘tuhao designer’ on the homepage of my online shop,” says Zhou, who hasn’t decided yet. “Maybe I should even use some ‘before and after’ photos of my tuhao clients, if they agree.”
The new gold iPhone 5s is commonly known as tuhao jin (jin means gold), because of the color and the higher price than the other two models in other colors. Despite its price, it was popular since pre-sale period.
News and stories about all kinds of tuhao are top clicks with many comments on many websites.
In October, a village official in Beijing organized a three-day wedding banquet with more than 200 tables for his son, said to cost around 1.5 million yuan (US$247,240). The story, headlined “tuhao wedding,” created a sensation, prompted an official investigation, and the tuhao official was sacked for graft-fueled extravagance.
A more recent “tuhao wedding,” posted this week in a few popular online forums, features a dozen dishes that look like thin slices of raw lamb ready for the hot pot. Close-up photos show the “lamb” slices to be pink, 100-yuan bills bundled with red tape and piled in a circle. It was said to amount to 5 million yuan given by the bridegroom from Nantong, a city in Jiangsu Province, to the bride’s family in Qingdao of Shandong Province.
Another “tuhao wedding” picture shows the bride, not her face, but her arms, both laden with gold bracelets, from the wrist practically to the shoulder.
“It is important to use the key words tuhao as much as possible in posting to guarantee more clicks. Tuhao is the new keyword that lures Internet users to move their fingers,” says Liu Tianning, who writes and compiles postings and jokes for online marketing companies.
“The point is to get extremely exaggerated, use examples of outrageous flaunted wealth, and then make fun of it,” she says.
Some of her recent works are photo sets featuring super-fat dogs and cats or regular-size dogs and cats wearing gold collars, diamond bracelets and gold and jeweled rings on their tails or ears. She has searched online for these real pet photos and compiled them together with the tuhao theme.
“The Chinese public used to hate rich and privileged people, especially those who flaunted their wealth,” Liu says.
“They still dislike wealthy people, but now the hatred has become more mocking and sarcastic, maybe not intentionally but subconsciously. Rather than envying and condemning the wealthy, they make fun of them. It feels much better than bitterness.”
The rehabilitation of tuhao began around September with a funny, online posting titled “Youth and Monk,” in which a troubled young man seeks advice from an elderly Zen master.
“Master, I’m extremely wealthy but I’m also extremely unhappy, please help me,” the young man says.
“What is wealth?” the monk asks.
“I have an eight-figure savings account and three apartments in downtown Beijing,” the young man answers.
The monk reaches out his right hand.
“Are you suggesting that I should appreciate everything I have and return some to society?”
“No,” the monk says, shaking the young man’s hand. “Tuhao, please be my friend.”
Instantly, the last sentence became a buzz phrase online and soon spread to the real world.
Today, when someone displays an expensive new purchase or describes luxury shopping, dining, or vacationing, it has become common to say, “Tuhao, please be my friend.”
‘Flashy, no taste’
Some people trace the popularity of the phrase to video gamers, even before the “Youth and Monk” parable. In many video games, a player completes tasks or vanquishes monsters to get credits in exchange for better weapons. Or, one can simply buy these enhanced powers with cash.
Among gamers, tuhao are those who simply buy and flaunt the most expensive magical weapons, and never consider the cost.
“Don’t label me tuhao,” says Wang Zhiqiang, an investor in his early 30s who has business in real estate, software developing, trading, antiques sales, films, among many pursuits.
“I am not tuhao because I have a dream. I’ve met and worked with many tuhao. They are really flashy, have no taste, and it’s all about money making. They have no dreams,” he is quick to explain.
Wang says he has worked his way up from a village in the Shanghai suburbs. Now he has entered the food and beverage industry by opening his first restaurant, First Seasons.
The menu will feature wines from an American chateau he recently purchased, and prime steak from a ranch in Australia, which he is in the process of purchasing. He has bought a company to develop a mobile app that displays to diners where the food comes from and how it was processed and transported — every step of the chain.
“The restaurant is just a testing ground, from where I can extend to many other business opportunities,” he says. “Opening the restaurant was more like a hobby, because I have traveled widely and eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world. I want to show that Chinese can also make great, authentic Western cuisine.
“So don’t confuse me with tuhao,” he adds. “But it doesn’t hurt to target them as my clients. Tuhao are particularly open to emerging products and services.”
Wang jokes about extending his restaurant business even further, to arranging tuhao dude ranch tourism on his scenic, sprawling Australian spread near Melbourne. He flew to Australia the day after the Shanghai Daily interview.
Chen Bin, in his late 30s, also left Shanghai for San Francisco, the day after the interview. He took his private jet to celebrate Christmas at a resort in which he has invested.
He also has interests in mining and real estate, owns a dozen properties in the United States, more in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Hong Kong, his three favorite cities.
Chen was recently invited to a charity event, where he was introduced as tuhao — to his great dismay and embarrassment.
“It’s okay for my friends. The word doesn’t mean what it used to. They always joke with me and call me tuhao, call my Ferrari a tuhao car, my resort a tuhao house, my Patek Philippe a tuhao watch, and I’m fine with that,” Chen says.
“But I did feel offended to be introduced that way in public, like a clown, especially because it was a charity event. I felt as if I had been thrown naked into the crowd. It’s not a proper word to use at a public event like that.
“I’m not some tuhao who throws money at charities to make up for guilt at having so much,” he adds.
Chen says it takes taste to spend money well, whether on clothing, recreation or choosing friends.
“I can call myself tuhao in a self-deprecating way, but I’m not tuhao. I’m from the city. I have a college degree. I am well mannered and I keep my head down,” he concludes.
My classmates say they want to marry tuhao, but I don’t think they really mean it. It’s just that the word is trendy now — it always gets a laugh. I wouldn’t want to be friends with tuhao. Look at all those tuhao photos. They’re so glitzy, with so much gold, and such low taste. I can’t imagine myself in any of those pictures.”
24, junior marketing specialist at a foreign firm
I don’t mind marrying a tuhao. Why not? I can improve his taste. If you fill your life with designer brands, expensive jewelry, fine dining, and trips around the world, one day you will have taste. For me, that’s better than knowing how to appreciate beautifully designed things without the money to buy them.”
32, chairman of a joint venture company
What is tuhao? The definition is so vague. I don’t know how we define it now. To me, it’s still a very bad word no matter how people use it online. I think it shows some people’s anger toward the group of wealthy people because they believe many rich people made their money through illegal ways, or privilege. But we should just live our own lives, realize our own dreams and let the rich flaunt their wealth.”
33, party organizer
A few years back, I started my own PR and event organizing company. I always invite some fu er dai (rich second generation 富二代) to the events and parties. It was a good keyword for sale. Once you have some rich babies on the list, the party looks more high-end and people fight to come. Now, I invite basically the same group, but I change the keyword from rich babies to tuhao. In the future, if there’s another fitting buzzword, I’ll use it.”
6, male student
At a family gathering, auntie told mama that I was very tuhao when I ate six pieces of abalone in a roll. Mama was proud, because I always eat the most expensive dishes on the table. She says I have a tuhao tongue.”
Taste is something that has to be cultivated, not only through money, but more importantly, with culture. I may not have as much money as tuhao, but I’m proud to have better taste.”
45, engineer and entrepreneur
Those who flaunt wealth like that deserve to be made fun of online. Netizens used to hate all wealthy people, now they have learned and they only make fun of those freaks who are dying for attention. It’s win-win-win: Ordinary people express dissatisfaction, tuhao get attention and the wealthy who are not tuhao avoid unwanted attention.”
72, retired primary school teacher
It is disgusting that now people adore tuhao. People complain about financial pressure, but I think they are simply asking for too much. Society as a whole is getting very superficial and materialistic. You really don’t need that much to live happily forever.”
76, retired mechanic
Tuhao? What’s that? Times have changed. In my day, all wealthy people tried to hide the property, even wearing clothes with patches. People competed to see who was more diligent, poorer and stingier. I’m old-fashioned.”