A big part of being wealthy in China is showing off that wealth—which means buying 50 bottles of $500 champagne at once, paying for seats in a VIP area that is lifted above the rest of the club's patrons, and having the flashiest car money can buy.
China is pretty much recovered from the global financial crisis and has the fastest-growing economy in the world, boasting more millionaires than any country other than the US. Naturally, some of that money has found its way into the hands of young people whose idea of a good time is emptying bottles of champagne over one anothers' heads, riding around in souped-up cars, and generally doing their best to make Chamillionaire look like Charlie Bucket.
I recently spent a weekend in Shanghai's clubs to find out exactly how China's affluent adolescents are spending their yuan.
My first stop was Linx, a recently opened club with ties to Yacht Club Monaco. Staffers here keep out the proles by ensuring that around 90 percent of the customers book tables in advance. This expense means they get a drink-fetching slave dressed like a go-go dancer, nipples visible through a mesh top, who is permanently on hand to top up their glasses—convenient for when extending and turning your arm becomes too strenuous.
One of the first things that struck me about the venue is that the designer seems to have forgotten to include a dance floor, a somewhat crucial element in most clubs. Where the dance floor should be—according to every club built since people started rubbing against one another at honky-tonk bars—is something that's arguably a lot more fun: a VIP area built on hydraulic pumps that literally raises the chosen ones above the regular clubbers, where they can quaff champagne while everyone watches.
Popping bottles in a club is hardly a phenomenon exclusive to China, but they've taken the ostentatious display of wealth to new heights. Shortly after I arrived this procession of waiters in LED gloves, all of them clasping expensive bottles of booze, formed a train and strutted up to the VIP zone.
Here are the dancers who'd been hired to entertain everyone. For the clientele at Linx, dancing is something you pay shit tons of money to watch other people do rather than do yourself. I got the sense that no one here was going to be losing a finger ripping a fire alarm off the wall any time soon.
"Once a customer orders above a certain amount we do a show," explained Linx general manager Kyle Sun, pictured above in the black jacket. "For this champagne train, the minimum order is six—a regular Dom Pérignon costs 3,180 yuan ($500). The most premium brand is Ace of Spades, which costs 9,000 yuan ($1,450), and if people order it we have the most beautiful showgirls serving it, plus a train to the table."
Everything in the club is designed to showcase wealth and accommodate one-upmanship, right down to the see-through cooling cases, which would presumably work just as well if they were opaque. Most of the tables are in view of one another, encouraging people to keep on splashing cash for more bubbly. Although Sun's long-term aim is to make Linx more of a private-focused club, it's his skill in cultivating these champagne wars that's made the place a success.
"The rich in China want to come to Shanghai and see this international city," he told me. "They come here with a load of cash and say, 'Everyone is wearing this or that brand—I'll buy two.' They see everyone having 50 bottles of champagne and want it too. These may be people who have suddenly come into money, and they're drinking vintage Dom Pérignon—they have no idea what it is! We shouldn't be pushing it, like, 'Mr. Wang, can you see that Mr. Li is opening another 50 bottles?' But from an operator point of view, we're happy."
John Osburg, assistant professor at the University of Rochester's department of anthropology, spent years clinking glasses with China's wealthy to research his book Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China's New Rich. "Elite consumption is different from what you find in the US, where it's often about consuming brands that are obscure," he said. "The logic in China is: 'I want what's going to be recognizable.'
"A lot of the new rich come from humble rural backgrounds. The phrase you hear is tuhao, which can mean 'country bumpkin' [the literal translation means 'uncouth' or 'bullying']. There's a sense that the new rich are tacky, and some of these people engage in the tackiest displays of their wealth. So this guy from the countryside on his first night at a club is going to see Dom Pérignon, and he'll be impressed. There's a joke from the Feng Xiaogang film Big Shot's Funeral that a lot of Chinese repeat: 'We don't want the best; we just want the most expensive.'"
This concept connects to peer respect—or "face"—which is hugely important in Chinese society. "One of our biggest customers ordered 100 bottles recently—he was with just ten people," Sun laughed. "But that's OK—we keep it, and he can drink it the next day. He's got his 100 bottles on show. He's got face!"
The Saturday after my Linx visit, Nicole Kidman, who was visiting for the Shanghai International Film Festival, was booked to sit at the best VIP spot. "Yes, we pay some of the celebs to come here," Sun admitted. "But the minimum charge to get the table next to her is 40,000 yuan ($6,400)."
Before I left Linx I chatted to this girl, Meggy, who seemed to be enjoying herself. "This new generation of young Chinese, they just want to show off," she said. "The guys want to show off to the girls with champagne. It usually works. It's not so good—I mean, there's so much distance between rich and poor in China. But I'm here, yeah—it's OK, and I'm not paying for my champagne."
On my way out, I noticed this procession of cars and wept a tiny tear for all the designated drivers at Linx, who I'm sure weren't planning to drive any of these home after a night drinking Ace of Spades.
Next, I headed to Mook, a two-year-old club that, I was told, is a bit "grimier" than Linx...
And this is what it looks like.
By now, it was about 1 AM and everyone was pretty wasted. Champagne was the most popular drink here as well, but there was also plenty of whisky being passed around, most of it served in fucking massive bottles, because wealth.
Club manager Hu Hong gave me some insight into his clientele. "A lot of these young Shanghainese people are second-generation rich, from rich families," he said. "Some don't do any work, but some work hard and learn from their parents. They come here and want to show off their success. They're competitive. Their parents often know one another. Then you have a sexy model with you, and you order 100 bottles... the competition's started."
Hu builds up strong relationships with his customers, and in return some spend up to 50,000 yuan ($8,000) per table, with the most exclusive spots (in the center, where the dance floor should be) in full view of pretty much everyone in the venue. There are other incentives too. "We have LED light badges, like medals," Hu says. "When people order more than five bottles they get one on their champagne cooler.
"Other clubs in Shanghai have fireworks when you order," Hu added, "but that just looks cheap."
There are clubs like Mook in cities all over China, but nowhere in the country is the clubbing culture as decadent as Shanghai's. Western cities tend to have a smattering of high-end clubs to cater to the moneyed elite, but with the ubiquity of clubs such as Linx and Mook—and M2, M on the Bund, 7th Floor, and Myst (that's their Moët bath pictured above)—Shanghai has made ostentatious opulence the clubbing norm.
But how long can this generation keep on cracking open 100 bottles a night as China's economic development—although still ahead of its rivals—begins to show signs of a possible slowdown?
"It comes more down to individual uncertainty," Osburg said. "Most people in China now are insecure about their status. People with money there are simultaneously despised and envied, so there's uncertainty about their position. There's a sense of, 'I'm going to enjoy my status and show off while I still can.'"
Jamie Fullerton in a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Times, the Sunday Times,the Independent, and other publications.