More than 120 million Chinese travel overseas annually. Occasionally, one or two unruly tourists would make headlines, triggering another round of nouveau riche caricature and soul searching. What exactly are the nouveau riche? My on-line dictionary defines the slightly pompous French term as “people who have recently acquired wealth, typically those perceived as ostentatious or lacking in good taste.” At least four subjective terms in this definition — recent, wealth, ostentatious, and good taste — need further clarification.
Since all things old come from the new, there ought to be a transition point where the newly rich officially turn old. But my attempt to identify this transition proved futile. China — one of the oldest wealthy countries if one takes the entire timeline of recorded history into view — has ironically created an unprecedented number of newly rich, whereas the USA, a recently minted country under the dictatorship of money, regards itself established.
Wealth is an equally whimsical parameter. A peasant lifted above hunger not long ago is not rich by any stretch of the imagination. When he proudly shows off his new shoes, is he acting nouveau riche? The personal dream of hundreds of millions of Chinese was a bicycle just a few decades ago. They have since moved on to electric cars and overseas travels. Their next communal goal is a xiaokang society, barely middle class in absolute money terms. Do they qualify for the nouveau riche in the meantime?
Ostentatiousness and good taste seem hollow and arbitrary. The Queen of England comes from a rich family. Yet ostentatiousness and opulence remain her trademarks, at least in speech and attire. Otherwise, we should see sober secretaries going to the office dressed like Her Majesty, answering the phone in a royal tone. The Second Star of Africa twinkling above Her Majesty’s forehead is a glaring symbol of wealth, designed to impress. It maybe more expensive than the brand sticker a jolly bumpkin proudly leaves on his new imported sunglasses, but the purpose and mentality are similar. More significantly, the sunglasses, with its professionally designed sticker on display, has been acquired through honest labour. In comparison with the glittering African gem, it’s undoubtedly more noble in origin and spirit, therefore more tasteful according to common hypocrisy. Those who find the expensive royal diamond awesome but the peasant’s sticker comical are evidently influenced by face values. Isn’t it typical nouveau riche vulgarity to perceive worthiness based on price-tag alone?
Ironically, the most showy arrivistes are often admired rather than derided. Besides royalties, the thriving entertainment business is replete with obnoxious examples. Bona fide nouveau riche also tend to complain the loudest about others’ newfound prosperity. In my not-so-distant childhood, shoeless kids were not uncommon in the streets of Hong Kong. The city subsequently refined itself with quick but hard-earned money. But some seem desperate to shed their industrious humble past. They now drive Mercedes in slo-mo to wine tasting courses, taking up two spaces in the parking lot before learning to pronounce vintage labels with Cantonese characteristics. They still talk habitually loud, but roll their eyes at similarly boisterous mainland holidayers.
Most of these tourists are in fact comfortable bumpkins, not nouveau riche. Of course a thriving community with 1.4 billion people has its fair share of quick-rich morons in huge numbers. When their money is denied its rightful voice as in free societies, they scream boorishly. But in spite of their disproportionate voice and media attention, they are a tiny minority in an annual tidal wave of vacationers roughly the combined population of France and the UK.
It’s commonly overlooked that these globe-trotting peasants are essentially a shopping testimony to Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. The communists have evidently sneaked growth dividends down to folks with dirty fingernails rather than handing over to Emperors as in the dynastic past, or funnelling to the One-Percent free capitalists as in some fundamentalist “democracies”. Notwithstanding a widened wealth gap, hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese can now afford international travelling, changing themselves and shopping malls worldwide. By contrast, most of their American counterparts have never seen a passport. They get their worldview from Fox News and the CNN, and remain divided in opinion as to where Canada is.
James Tam 2018.1.26