Baijiu

Strain spotting

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am

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Wang Kun owns a successful import-export company in Dandong, Liaoning province, near the North Korean border. He's also in hospital, suffering from exhaustion and high blood pressure. And he hasn't even turned 40.

Like other mainland millionaires - of which there were about 236,000 last year - Wang is buckling under the pressures of running a company. 'Every day I have to meet so many clients and officials,' he says. 'My brain is overloaded.'

Yet even from his hospital bed, Wang is busy making calls to sell flats he owns in Beijing and Shanghai as he prepares to emigrate to Canada next year. Relaxation is a distant concept that he knows about but can't achieve.

'What I'd really like to do is go home and hang out with my wife, watch TV, and chat,' he says. 'That's how I relax. But I really can't. I don't have the time.'

Wang's dilemma is a familiar one on the mainland today. Sky-high stress levels, overeating and over-drinking at banquets and long hours of negotiations are producing a group of people who are thriving financially but poor in terms of well-being, according to a survey conducted by the country's biggest health examination company, Ciming Checkup. 'We stumbled on this by accident,' says Ciming director Han Xiaohong. 'We were discovering that the people who paid for the most expensive physicals had the worst results in terms of blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and so on.'

Last year, the company conducted about 500,000 physicals, costing from 300 yuan to 11,000 yuan each. Han, a doctor, examined the self-declared income brackets of her top-paying clients and found that of 183 company owners with assets of more than 10 million yuan, all had at least one health problem. Nearly half suffered from excess fats in the bloodstream; more than one in five had high blood pressure; and one in eight had high blood sugar. One-third of cases had abnormalities recorded on an electrocardiogram and two out of three suffered from neck or back pain. Each of the figures was above the national average for their age group, says Han.

Ostentatious consumption is soaring on the mainland, with the invitation-only Millionaire Fair in Shanghai last year flaunting solid-gold jacuzzis and 2-million-yuan Porsches. Yet true relaxation lags far behind. And despite warnings that their stressful lifestyles are driving them into an early grave, few of the new rich are taking time out.

'Doctors tell them that they absolutely must start relaxing and exercising,' says Han. 'We advise [exercising] a minimum of three times a week for half an hour each time. But they aren't doing it. They say they don't have time.'

That's no excuse, says Yang Songquan, who teaches the Chen style of tai chi every day at Tianwang Palace in Beijing's Beihai Park. 'Tai chi has taught for hundreds of years that if you don't have time, you must steal it,' the master of the ancient relaxation technique says, grabbing at the air with his hand. 'Today is no different.'

The rich are now being offered fresh ways to de-stress, with travel to exotic destinations such as the South Pole and increasingly popular golf and castle trips to Ireland. 'The rich are seeking ways to improve their quality of life, and people are talking about taking holidays to de-stress,' says the manager of a luxury travel company.

Other trends include skiing, horse riding and cross-country driving, which have an element of adventure but are relatively safe. Golf, the traditional sport of the better-off, is booming, with about 250 golf courses on the mainland from which to choose. Yet many wealthy people say they are venues for business deals, rather than relaxation.

Flying club owner He Chi says his affluent clients extol the simplicity and release of flying.

'When they're up there, there's only the sky, weather and the plane to think about,' says He. 'Relaxation is a big part of why they come.'

Gai Yongjun, the owner of Palette Wines, felt a need to slow down about three years ago. 'I wanted to grow the company too fast,' he says. His stress levels soared.

These days, Gai says he's found a better balance in his life. He goes on holiday twice a year, for about a week at a time - and turns off his phone. 'That is crucial,' he says. 'Very few people do that.'

Bosses are taking on too much, he says. 'The way people do PR here, they go out and eat and drink. Because of the face thing, people can never say no.'

The vast majority of these high-fliers don't know how to relax, the fortysomething wine importer says.

'I see a lot of bosses my age and they don't go to films, they never go to galleries,' he says. 'They just play mahjong and go to banquets' where many drink large amounts of baijiu, a white vodka-like spirit. 'I don't drink baijiu any more. If you drink too much, you waste half of the next day. And that's stressful.'

Gai's favourite way to relax is comparatively modest: he visits an old-fashioned Beijing bathhouse, where an attendant scrubs him shiny for just 20 yuan.

'You can't go too often, about once a month, or your skin gets too dry,' Gai says. 'But it really relaxes you. It's not just the deep cleansing; it's also the all-over massage. I don't go to fancy spas. This does just fine.'

Traditional stress-busters such as acupuncture are out of fashion, Han says. 'When people see needles they tend to get stressed,' she says.

However, yoga is becoming increasingly popular. 'A lot of people have too much pressure in their lives because of work and they get depressed. Yoga helps them,' says Mian Jiaming, an instructor at the Ximala yoga teacher training centre, which produces about 100 new teachers a year.

Poor health isn't the only problem of the nouveaux riches.

Their unpopularity may be another source of stress. A recent survey by the China Youth Daily and Sina.com reported that 70 per cent of almost 4,000 interviewees believed the well-off are immoral, having become rich through bribery and other corrupt means.

And mainlanders who should know better aren't taking doctors' advice either. Han successfully battled stomach cancer two years ago, but the 40-year-old admits ruefully that she doesn't take care of herself. 'My health isn't great,' she says. 'I have back problems that need several hours' attention a week, so half an hour, three times a week, isn't going to sort it out. And I just don't have the time for that. I know; it's very ironic.'

 

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