Tall order

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am

Opposite the Paramount - one of Shanghai's most famous pre-war dance halls - work began last week on a new bar and restaurant named after the city's best-known sports star.

Yao's Kitchen is due to start serving dumpling soup and Blue Star beer on June 21. That is one year to the day after the opening of its namesake in downtown Houston, Texas - where Yao Ming plays for the local Rockets of the National Basketball Association (NBA). The venue is popular with Rockets fans, Chinese tourists and George Bush Senior, who enjoys its roast duck.

The 4,300 sq ft Shanghai restaurant, built in what used to be a branch of one of the big state banks, will serve the same kind of Chinese cuisine as the one in Houston. A bar on the second floor, more than twice as large, will serve Texas-style steaks and have large television screens for watching NBA games.

It involves an investment of about 10 million yuan, but apparently not from the Yao family, who put up the money for the Houston restaurant. This time the funds are from an associate named Yu Di, who plans to open a second restaurant in Beijing before the end of the year. Clients will be attracted less for the quality of the dishes than the desire to be associated with the first Chinese to have made it big in a foreign sports league.

A 2.26-metre-tall Shanghai native, Yao has astonished his countrymen by holding his own in the NBA, against players who grew up in an environment much nastier than the spartan surroundings of the state sports school where he lived for eight years. His games are broadcast live on national television, rerun and analysed, giving basketball a mass popularity it never enjoyed before he went to the United States.

Yao's commercial savvy - with endorsements for Visa, Apple Computer, Nike and China Unicom - made him China's richest star last year, with income of 170 million yuan, according to Forbes magazine.

But, curiously, he may be more marketable in the US than China. In America, people see his good manners and clean living as a pleasant change from the egoism and night-time escapades of many of his NBA colleagues.

But in China, Yao is far from the first choice for advertisers trying to sell cosmetics, fashion and other products aimed at young people. Instead, they prefer endorsements from pop singers or film stars from the mainland, Taiwan or Hong Kong. That's because Yao is seen as 'straight' rather than 'cool'.

So the main clients for the new restaurants are more likely to be basketball fans than teenage Casanovas seeking to impress their fashion-conscious dates.