Field of dreams
When Pan Sutong hit on the idea of founding a polo club to appeal to China's nouveau riche, the Hong Kong-based tycoon decided to think big. Very big, in fact. The Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, which stands in the northern port city of Tianjin, features stables with around 50 imported polo ponies which cost US$50,000 each. There is a five-star hotel with a gourmet restaurant and a cellar stocked with the finest French wines. Pan is even planning to make a private jet available for members to charter.
That would probably have been enough for most developers. But Pan wanted the blessing of people in the upper echelons of the exclusive sport. So he flew in top international players for an opening exhibition game. The polo stars included Nicholas Colquhoun-Denvers, a friend of Prince Charles and the chairman of the Hurlingham Polo Association - a club that is generally regarded as the home of polo.
Colquhoun-Denvers may have been more used to the refined English version of the game which features cucumber sandwiches and upper-crust accents. The ex-army officer watched polo played against a backdrop of half-completed skyscrapers. The match followed a pre-game entertainment schedule which featured a red-haired rap singer, a parade of leggy blondes and some stilt-walkers in snowman costumes.
This was not the pukka version of polo as played on the playing fields of England but dressed immaculately in a blue blazer and pressed slacks, he watched the unfolding festivities smiling all the while.
'When we arrived it was a mud bath,' said the Sandhurst-educated son of a diplomat, who played polo in Hong Kong when stationed here with the British army. 'They had thousands of workers get it ready overnight for the game. It was incredible. The ground is super. I am told that it only took them six weeks to lay the turf. To do all that in the United Kingdom would have taken a year. I got the impression that when the Chinese turn their minds to something, they can do it better than anyone else.
'We looked at the stables for the horses and they were absolutely superb. They were air-conditioned. We would die for stables like that! I think as the Chinese lifestyle changes, polo will become more popular. It is a sport which involves the whole family. Everyone enjoys the lifestyle and being out in the country.'
Polo's potential has brought a group of Argentinean businessmen to the country. They are hoping to capitalise on Argentina's reputation for running top-notch polo clubs. China Polo Clubs has a development in Beijing due to open later this year, and plans to open clubs in Shanghai and the Hainan Island resort of Sanya. 'Our company is made up of traditional Argentinean polo families and international businessmen related to polo,' says company president Agustin Juarros. 'We are committed to developing polo in China a high level.'
Exclusive polo clubs are not entirely new in contemporary China. Shanghai has the Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club, a classy facility with Australian management. But there is nothing quite on the scale of the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club.
The club is in the process of purchasing a chateau in France and acquiring a ski lodge in Japan. In total, around US$250 million has been invested in the clubhouse and polo facilities. This is a relatively small figure in the context of the entire Goldin development, which will include flats, offices, a convention centre and even an opera house. To join the club as a social member will cost US$60,000, with a handful of 'polo patron' memberships offered at US$1.5 million.
Goldin executives admit that the polo club's main purpose is to sprinkle some style and glamour over the larger development. Those qualities are in short supply in the boondocks of industrial Tianjin. 'Polo is a branding tool which lends prestige and stature to the entire development,' says club president, Rowland K. Wong, a Hong Kong-born hotelier. 'Golf clubs and country clubs are used in this way everywhere.'
'The Goldin chairman thinks that polo possesses this quality - it's known as the sport of kings. Typical club members are people who are well-educated and are accomplished in their respective professions. Polo is also a way to get back in touch with nature, to connect with horses and the environment. We are using recycled water and materials that are environmentally-friendly.
'Having these polo events has increased the importance of Tianjin as a city. With so many people coming from abroad, people now know the stature of the project. Tianjin has been known for its industrial success but it is also one of the very few municipalities in China that remains a good investment opportunity.'
The landmark Goldin building will be a 117-storey office tower surrounded by clusters of office blocks, residential buildings and villas. Swathes of woodland, man-made lakes and the polo field, will be sculpted into the surrounding land.
The club has a full complement of expatriate polo experts on staff. These include Derek Reid, a former captain of the Australian polo team, and Briton Paul Stevens, who has worked in clubs like the prestigious Guards Polo Club in London.
'This is above and beyond anything I have seen before,' says Stevens. 'If I ask for something, it is there the next day. We have the best horses and the best support. The equipment comes from Argentina and England. There is real opulence and affluence here. The club wine cellar has 10,000 bottles of fine French wine.'
No expense has been spared on other parts of the polo operation. The centrepiece is a members-only hotel. The gleaming five-star property has all the ornate accoutrements that Chinese new-money patrons demand: lots of marble, plenty of big pillars, and a collection of massive chandeliers.
The owners were not content with just one showcase polo game to open the club. They also staged a winter snow polo tournament. The event was billed as the first of its kind in Asia.
The sight of grown men on horses chasing a ball in the freezing cold had the locals scratching their heads. Steward J.M. Tinsley, another Hurlingham Polo Club import, was on hand to explain. Tinsley was flown in for the event, with players and referees from Australia, New Zealand, England, Argentina, Malaysia and France.
'I think they have made a terrific job of it. They have put a lot of resources into getting the horses,' says Tinsley. 'They asked if they could be associated with Hurlingham and we agreed. 'Our rules have stood the test of time, and there is a prestige that goes with our name. We are happy to lend our name to the club. I think polo has enormous potential in China.'
Plans are already under way for more international polo tournaments later this year . The aim is to make Tianjin a fixture on the international polo circuit. Goldin also hopes to develop similar projects in other booming Chinese cities.
'The polo club is the prelude, and benchmark, of all the great excitement that is to come,' says Goldin Properties chairman Pan, who declines interviews and makes his pronouncements in company documents.
'We see this city taking an increasingly important role in the Chinese and global economies. 'Through events at the club we can contribute to its overall progression towards the status of international city.'