Businesses feed off growing nostalgia for Mao Zedong

In the second of a two-part series, we look at how a range of businesses are feeding off the controversial leader's booming popularity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:09am

From red pork dishes to badges and little red books, almost everything bearing the mark of Mao Zedong is popular on the mainland, as businesses try to make money from the man and his controversial legacy.

Tang Ruiren, 84, a distant relative and close neighbour of Mao's family, is one of the key figures making Mao's favourite cuisine a household name. As an illiterate rice farmer in Shaoshan, Hunan province, she began selling mung bean and rice porridge to tourists in a tiny business she set up in 1984 with only 1.7 yuan to her name.

But she did not start really building her fortune until three years later when she opened a small family eatery under the name Mao's Restaurant in the heart of Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao, where she serves several of the chairman's favourite dishes, such as braised pork belly in soy sauce and fire-toasted fried fish, which were widely known among the locals in the town.

Her humble restaurant provided the foundation of a multi-billion yuan business empire, the Mao Group, with 300 branches on the mainland. Its success exemplifies how the legacy of the Chinese icon has become a cash cow amid a revival of Mao nostalgia, which got a major boost on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1993 and has been growing ever since.

The former revolutionary was born into a peasant family and December 26 marks the 120th anniversary of his birth. Tang's daughter, Mao Taozhi, said Tao attributed the success of Mao's Restaurant to the public's infatuation with Chairman Mao. Elderly Tang is still the president of Mao Group company.

"Mao's Restaurant could only become what it is today because of the love and reverence the Chinese people, and even people from other countries, hold for Chairman Mao," said Mao Taozhi. "Those who've dined at Mao's Restaurant did not simply come for delicacies, but to come to have a feel for him, to express their respect for and pay tribute to him."

Tang only met Mao once during a gathering with several other relatives in 1959, when he returned to Shaoshan for the first time in 27 years. An enlarged photo of the gathering hangs prominently on a wall in Tang's home. Mao's Restaurant outlets throughout the mainland are also decorated with memorabilia that celebrates Mao, including copies of his writings and bronze statuettes of the former leader.

Tang's daughter, who is also on the board of directors of the company, said she is aware of the public's concern over people who have cashed in on Mao's legacy. But she justified it by saying the restaurant was preserving genuine dishes from Mao's hometown.

She claimed that she has found at least two copycat restaurants with a Mao theme on the mainland with the intention of posing as outlets of the Mao's Restaurant chain. The company is considering taking legal action .

"Mao's Restaurant is at the vanguard of Chairman Mao's hometown in Shaoshan. We have the responsibility to safeguard it," says Mao Taozhi.

According to her, the group has developed several hundred dishes for Mao's Restaurant outlets nationwide. Several of Mao's favourite dishes - including Long March Chicken - have become a fixture in the menus at all of Mao's Restaurant branches.

Mao's Group also launched a pre-prepared food operation in 2008 specialising in packaging Mao's favourite foods to a broader customer base, including air travellers. The company also made a foray into the liquor market, unveiling two lines of liquors ahead of the chairman's 120th birthday on December 26.

Earlier this year, it unveiled two lines of white liquor products as a tribute to the helmsman.

Mao's popularity is not only the result of nostalgia and hero worship. The central government's promotion of Red Culture has made Mao-related items a good investment, observers say.

"There's interest every minute," said Chen Wei , a seller of Mao badges and porcelain objects in Beijing's Pan Jia Yuan antique market.

About eight billion red badges were made during the 10-year Cultural Revolution starting in 1966, a period which saw millions persecuted and the economy severely disrupted during a decade of turmoil. Overall, tens of millions died amid the chaos and famine created by Mao's regime. The badges were distributed free to Chinese so the masses could show loyalty to Mao's leadership. The badges, made of plexiglass, porcelain, plastic or bamboo, have a market value of between 150 and 200 yuan each these days, Chen said.

For porcelain items used by Mao or produced by the Hunan Liling plant authorised for Mao's Chinaware, prices range from tens of thousand to millions of yuan, he said.

In June, a set of colourful porcelain bowls used by Mao was auctioned for HK$11.68 million in Hong Kong. Hunan plant products ordered by Mao's grandson Mao Xinyu in 2001 have a market price of 40,000 to 50,000 yuan for a set of four bowls.

"Various Mao-related items are available on the market to satisfy all kinds of demand. Plexiglass small items to remember the chairman by and timely and expensive articles, which could appreciate [in value] because of their scarcity," he said.

Strong demand for all things Mao is being generated by private museums set up by affluent Chinese individuals and public museums established by local governments at the behest of the central government, said Han Jianjing , an exhibition designer in Beijing.

"Historical documents, propaganda posters in Mao's era, army uniforms and military equipment are in great demand as museums and exhibition rooms are set up across the nation to remember the Red Culture," Han said.

The Ministry of Finance set aside 4.48 billion yuan in 2011 and 7.16 billion yuan last year for cultural projects. The funds are being used to protect relics and promote Red tourism, including the construction of memorials, museums and exhibition centres located at the sites of important battles fought by the Communist Party against Japanese invaders and during the civil war that saw the overthrow of the regime of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek.

But the continued interest in Mao is not just dictated by the government. There is genuine enthusiasm towards the revolutionary leader, according to Li Biao, a fan of the red-covered book of Mao's Quotations.

"There is no question Mao was a successful man," Li said, adding that he has yet to find another book on success as good as Mao's Quotations.

Copies of Mao's Quotations, published before the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, go for as high as 1,000 yuan, compared with 100 yuan a decade ago.

Li said he deeply admires Mao because of his well-cited quotations, a favourite one being; "Practice is the sole criterion of truth."

"The success of Mao's followers shows how Mao's thinking is realistic and useful in China's business world," he said.

Shi Yuzhu, a businessman who runs the online game operator Giant Interactive and also sells health care products, has said that on various occasions he took the advice of Mao to "use rural areas to encircle cities".

That helped him build a good market for his products in populous third-tier cities and rural areas before he succeeded in big cities.

"You can learn everything from Mao's Quotations," Li said. "From management to investment, Mao shows you how to succeed."