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New moneyed Chinese embrace polo

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The sport of kings is making a comeback in China

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Shanghai

China's economic development in recent years has created an ever growing class of entrepreneurs and business people who have made their fortunes.

Now a pastime that some argue started in the country 1,800 years ago only to die out during the Cultural Revolution is making a comeback for the moneyed classes.

In an immaculately tended field in Zhejiang province an unusual event is getting underway.

It is unusual, because for years the game of polo was seen as a deeply suspect pastime of the capitalist classes.

But the sport of kings is making a comeback.

'Fashion statement'

The day starts with dragon dancers. Many, but by no means all, in the crowd are in their finery.

This is definitely an event for the well-heeled though.

Gene Wang
For a certain person who has bought the big house, the fast cars... there is a point when you think, what else can I spend my money on?
Gene Wang

The matches are raising money for Shanghai charities.

Gene Wang is a Shanghainese polo player.

He is a former financial trader who says at the moment he is more interested in "fun" than "work".

An amateur, Mr Wang is typical of the new generation of wealthy players taking up the sport here.

"For a certain type of person, who has bought the big house, the fast cars, the designer labels, who has the mistresses, there is a point when you think, what else can I spend my money on?"

He is careful to make clear though, he does not see himself as quite in that bracket, but he does think, for China's richest, polo is becoming "a fashion statement".

Gene and another Chinese player are paired up with two more experienced team-mates from overseas.

They saddle up and tear off across the grass in front of the marquees.

Gene's training (three times a week for several months) appears to have paid off. Within minutes he has scored.

On the sidelines watching the matches is Liang Shangyan, a Chinese entrepreneur, one of the first women to take up the sport in China.

Polo players in Shanghai
The Chinese players are keen to learn, one US expert says

"Those who are playing polo are the first generation of the country's rich people," she explains.

"They are investing in the sport and polo will be popular in China very soon. You can see today that we have the first Chinese team that can compete with their world-class rivals," she says.

That is perhaps a little over-optimistic.

The Chinese players are keen, but helped a lot by the professionals brought in to train them and play alongside them - experts like Tom Crater, an American.

"I cannot believe how fast polo is developing in China," he says.

"I also play in Thailand and Indonesia, and the rate of Chinese people coming and showing interest in the game and learning the game is phenomenal for me," Mr Crater continues.

Mysterious traditions

Polo of course is not just about what happens on the pitch.

In the VIP tent the champagne is flowing freely. The first generation of Chinese people to get rich spent most of their time making money and now they want to enjoy themselves, to appreciate the finer things in life.

The founder of the Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club, today's host in fact, is Steve Wyatt. He says in China polo is becoming the perfect way to show you have made it.

Chinese spectators at a polo match
Many in the crowd, but not all, were in their finery

"It is hats, beautiful dresses, finest champagne, whisky and people looking at the best cars," he explains.

"That is completely opposite to the horsey set you might find in Europe."

Some polo traditions are respected, like treading in the divots (the pieces of turf cut out of the ground by horses' hooves) at half time.

A loudspeaker announcement invites the spectators on to the pitch to replace the turf that has been disturbed, but the commentators have to spell out to people what to do.

It is a reminder that this is still a pastime that is something of a mystery for the moneyed classes here.

However, the organisers of this event say this is a glimpse of the future of the sport worldwide - polo, you might say, with Chinese characteristics.

There is no snobbery.

Anyone can take part. As long, that is, as they have got enough money.



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