Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Saturday, 16 January 2010

China's children turn to golf in a bid to get ahead

As China's population continues to soar, wealthy parents who want their children to stand out from the crowd are having to make a special effort. Some, finds Michelle Tsai, are turning to sports that not long ago would have been seen as elitist.

Young golfers head to the greens for their lesson at a Beijing golf course.
Take-up of golf in China soared in line with the country's economic growth

This looked nothing like the Beijing I knew.

I was just west of Third Ring Road, one of the capital's gridlocked highways, but I could no longer hear the honking cars, rumbling buses, or the rut-tut-tut of the motorised rickshaws.

In fact, I could not even see the massive buildings that dominate this section of the city.

In front of me was one huge expanse of manicured green grass, an anomaly in this megalopolis of concrete.

The only sounds? The thwacks of golf balls being struck.

I was at a golf course in downtown Beijing, and striding toward me was Eddie Shi, who had arrived to fine-tune his long game.

He was flanked by his regular entourage: his father, his translator and his caddy, all of whom towered over him. Because Eddie is eight years old.

Competitive edge

With their wallets fattened by decades of unprecedented economic growth, wealthy Chinese parents have been trying to find new ways to give a competitive edge to their little ones.

One of the latest trends is enrolling children in sports more often associated with well-heeled Westerners, than China's new middle-classes.

Every week Eddie and his father, Shi Jian, make the three-hour drive from the nearby city of Tianjin.

They come to this course for the experienced coaching, Shi Jian, a manager at a Swiss pharmaceutical company, told me.

It's a gentleman's sport
Eddie Shi, eight

Here the coaches are foreign, which means Eddie can improve his English while he tinkers with his swing.

"Why would a Chinese eight-year-old like golf?" I asked.

"It's a gentleman's sport," Eddie told me, sounding more like one of those bow-tie-wearing, flannel-suited commentators from decades past.

Then he skipped off to fetch a golf ball printed with the Japanese robot cat Doraemon.

His father had these specially made as a reward, after Eddie hit a hole-in-one a few months ago.

On this Saturday, Eddie's lesson started with practice chips at the driving range.

"Aim for the marker," said his coach, a tall Australian.

I suspected that this was all too easy for Eddie, who has played golf since he was four and heads to a driving range most evenings after finishing his homework.

The previous week he hit a ball 190m with a driver.

Upward mobility

When Shi Jian was growing up, he played football with the kids in his neighbourhood.

Now, he says, there are fewer kids - the result of China's one child policy.

It's hard to get two teams together.

Eddie happens to play golf, but in today's China, cultivating your son or daughter is the true national sport.

A young Chinese girl taking a piano exam
Parents hope their daughters' musical skills will help them find a husband

The eight-year-old also takes private lessons for jazz percussion, maths and English, but his parents expect golf to make the biggest difference in his life, and help dispel the stereotype that Chinese people don't know how to have fun.

"China's future is an international one," said Shi Jian.

"If Eddie goes to the US in the future, he'll have more to talk about with his friends there."

Upward mobility doesn't come cheap though.

At this particular school, SGA Golf Academy, a 10-hour package of one-on-one sessions costs 10,000 yuan - two-thirds the average annual salary of an urban worker.

When the lesson ended, I asked Eddie what the hardest thing was about golf. He answered like a pro.

"The bunker," he said. Then he ran off to play video games, free for a little while.

For the first time that afternoon Eddie seemed like a regular kid, someone who gets silly and jokes around.

And although he appeared content during his lesson I couldn't help but wonder if Eddie wouldn't rather be less serious about the sport.

In another district, Shunyi, plots of farmland mix with international schools and gated communities. On weekends, children come here for the Equuleus International Riding Club.

There are too many people in China and everybody wants to move up
Su Lin, mother

The entrance sits across the road from farm stands selling fruit and vegetables, but inside it feels more like the grounds of a boarding school.

On a recent morning, I watched young equestrians on horseback in the indoor arena. Proud parents looked on from the side.

One student, a beginner, didn't appear to be doing anything. Then I realised he was so young that his lesson involved just sitting astride the horse.

Brutal cycle

I met a 12-year-old who was about to head home after her trotting lesson. This girl was the picture of a genteel sportswoman: a riding crop in one hand, her long hair tucked under her riding hat, and cheeks pink from the chilly air.

Her proud mother, government worker Su Lin, rattled off a list of her daughter's accomplishments.

She has mastered all four swimming strokes, has excellent posture, practices tai chi, and has studied books of etiquette and ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement.

These skills will help her get ahead, and maybe even secure a successful husband one day.

Su Lin acknowledged that everyone is caught in a brutal cycle here.

"There are too many people in China. There's little living space and everybody wants to move up. So everyone works harder, which just makes the competition worse," she said.

"What kind of activities did Su Lin do as a teenager?" I asked.

"None," replied the state worker. "I only studied."

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