Newly rich always good for a laugh

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am


A man becomes wealthy and now his aim is to join the aristocracy. He spends ridiculous sums of money on splendid clothes and private lessons on fencing, dancing and philosophy. Everyone can see he's making a fool of himself. Everyone but he.

It's the plot of Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and it had its premiere in 1670. It tells us there's nothing new about the phenomenon of the nouveau riche.

But never before, perhaps, have so many become rich so quickly after having risen from so little as the newly wealthy of the Chinese mainland. Last year alone, the ranks of China's millionaires grew by 12 per cent, rising to 534,500 - fourth in the world behind the United States, Japan and Germany, according to Capgemini SA and Bank of America Corp.

With little history, experience or foreign travel to guide them, it's understandable that the baofahu, or 'suddenly wealthy', are spending money on the cars, clothing, handbags, watches and furniture that carry the fanciest brand names. Naturally, a lot of these show-offs are getting it wrong.

One reason the Da Vinci furniture scandal - in which 'made in Italy' furnishings turned out to be cheap knock-offs - succeeded for as long as it did was because the customers were as unsophisticated as their bank accounts were swollen.

It's easy for the rest of us to have a good laugh at the expense of these modern 'bourgeois gentlemen'.

But to be fair, choices on the mainland are limited. The furniture retail market is dominated by a few dealers, often because they have better local connections. In a more open market with more competing goods to choose from, it's less likely the customers would get conned.