Updated: 2012-09-14 07:46
By Mark Graham (China Daily)
For Xia Yang, founder of the Beijing Sunny Times Polo Club, the British Polo Day in particular and the polo venture as a whole neatly combine pleasure and work. Mark Graham / For China Daily
Chinese developer saddles up to ride on growing interest in elite sport
Polo, a sport strongly associated with royalty and the super rich, is enjoying a surge of popularity in China, with a growing number of private clubs and international tournaments that bring in players from Europe, Australia and Argentina. One of the best-known events is the annual British Polo Day, due to be held on Sept 22 at the Beijing Sunny Times Polo Club of the architect-property developer Xia Yang.
Xia developed an interest in the sport after watching a television program that featured its most famous practitioner, Britain's Prince Charles, in action. After training to become an expert polo player, adept at whacking a small ball while galloping at high speed on horseback, Xia decided to build his own club, confident that like-minded players would sign up as members.
Participating in the sport is an expensive proposition, involving outlay on ponies, stabling, grooms and equipment. The wealthy individuals who sign up figure that the rewards far outweigh the expense: membership of an exclusive club with all the prestige and face that brings, participation in annual international tournaments, and the opportunity to exercise in a vigorous, thrilling and challenging manner.
"I like horses very, very much and when I decided to run a polo club my friends said it was a very difficult task that would demand time and money and also commitment," Xia says. "Polo is an activity that needs skill and is a way for you to make friends and is also a high-end business platform; most people who play run their own businesses.
"I also hope it can be a bridge between Chinese business people and foreign business people from all kinds of industries. I was prepared for all the difficulties, and now the results are beginning to show. We have the annual British Polo Day and there are clubs in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai. I am planning major expansion at the Sunny Times Polo club; I want to turn it into a major center for equestrianism and also build a hotel and vineyard."
A similar polo club, on a much larger scale, has also opened in the port city of Tianjin, a short train ride from Beijing. The Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club features stables with imported polo ponies, a five-star hotel with a gourmet, Michelin-level restaurant and a cellar stocked with the finest French wines.
When the club opened, the owners brought in the chairman of Hurlingham Polo Club, home of the sport, and put on a tournament with players from England, France, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. They were left slack-jawed at the opulence of the club; the horses live in air-conditioned stables, cared for by a team of expatriate experts.
But, lavish though that facility is, there is no escaping the fact that it is located in an industrial city, unlike the Sunny Times Polo Club, which boasts lush-countryside surroundings and the Great Wall only a short drive away.
After last year's British Polo Day tournament, Xia staged a lavish party beneath the ramparts of the Wall, with entertainment that included Argentinean tango dancers, Chinese lion dancers and martial arts displays.
Finding companies willing to help underwrite the event is not a problem, given that the participants, and spectators, are China's new rich who spend freely on luxury goods. Among the sponsors were those quintessentially British automobile manufacturer Land Rover, a five-star hotel group and various companies selling high-end jewelry and clothing.
Spectators saw an afternoon of vigorous competition featuring teams from Britain, New Zealand, Argentina and the host country, China. Playing for the Piaget-sponsored China team, and in the thick of the action, was Xia himself.
He says: "For me it is a lifelong hobby that I intended to play for many years. As long as I can ride a horse, I will play polo. I was drawn to polo originally when I saw a program with Prince Charles playing. I thought he looked like a hero and that it was a very cool sport. It made me think of how people must have been in ancient times when warriors rode to battle in China.
"In the West, polo is said to be an aristocrats' sport. We don't have aristocrats in China but we do have a lot of people who have got very rich very quickly. I want to encourage them to behave like gentlemen, and playing polo is part of that."
Chinese historians say that the game has been played in the country since the third century but began to decline in popularity during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Other parts of Asia also have games similar to polo but it was the British, as with so many sports, who gave it a rigid set of rules and a code of conduct.
The basic aim is similar to soccer or hockey: the four players on each side attempt to thwack the ball between their opponents' goalposts. It makes for a thrilling spectacle, as the horses thunder down the field, or turn deftly on commands from the riders.
A big part of any polo day is the social side, with spectators dressing up in their finest clothing. Sipping champagne, nibbling cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea is part of the ritual in this oh-so-British of sports.
This year one of its major Chinese supporters, Xia, will saddle for an afternoon of intense competition. For him, the day in particular and the polo venture as a whole, neatly combine pleasure and work. He loves polo, and sees the entire equestrian venture as a going concern for the future.
He has spent $16 million on the project and estimates that when it is finished the total amount invested will add up to more than $200 million. The club has 30 members and 100 horses, half of them polo ponies.
"Enthusiasm alone cannot support you - you have to sustain it with a profitable business plan," he says. "I have dreams, and I like to fulfill those dreams the polo center is another dream for me that I am making come true."
Strong support has been forthcoming from the London headquarters of British Polo Day, which puts on similar events around the world. Co-founder Edward Olver will once again fly out to help with preparation and on-the-day organization.
"The future of polo in China is incredibly bright. It has been classified as a cosmopolitan signature of the Chinese people, and there is huge enthusiasm for a sport that was played in the Tang court," Xia says.
"Many believe that China was the foundation of the sport."