Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sleeping Dragon

Shanghai is a kick-ass city. I don’t care if the dense particulate haze does make its skyline look like a dystopian sci-fi film: I love this place. For starters, all beers come in 600ml bottles, which is excellent. I don’t even mind paying more for Starbucks coffee than I do at home (yeah, I’m not sure how that’s possible, either, but there you go) – it’s that cool here.

It is seriously missing one thing, though. Football.

I know I should probably reserve judgment until after I go to tonight’s game, but the footballlessness is really striking.

Visually: No replica shirts, nothing in the papers. In convenience stores, pop bottles and chip packs are marked by a complete absence of Ronaldinho, no galacticos, no Brazil, no nothing. Even Beckham manages only a lonely Motorola advert, and even there, he’s in civvies. There’s more F1 and tennis - Federer in particular - on the streets than there is football.

(Let me interrupt this blog entry to just say that the fish appetizer I am eating right now is absolutely delicious. Really top notch. An eagerly awaiting my crispy beef)

Faced with this visual lacuna, I decided to go book-shopping to see if I could at least get a handle on how the game is consumed in print. Shanghai, like many Asian cities, is helpfully laid out according into retail clusters: eighteen stationary stores next to each other, followed by thirty-five musical instrument stores all next to each other, etc (Hanoi even has a replica football shirt district, but clearly that’s absent here). So I went to the book district, which was packed on account of today’s the launch day for the Mandarin edition of the final Harry Potter novel, and found the largest bookstore I could find: The Shanghai Book Mall. Seven massive stories of literature, books, DVDs, etc – as modern a bookstore as you’re going to find anywhere in the world.

(Crispy beef has arrived. It’s a monumental disappointment after the fish because it appears to be – and I wish I were kidding about this - covered in mayonnaise).

Anyways, this is a bookstore with literature in translation from all over the world. The business section in particular is filled with books by Peter Drucker, Peter Lynch, et. al. The Maoism-Marxism-Leninism section seems to be part of “management”, so the Mao treatises are actually right next to the Drucker tomes. I find this shelving arrangement particularly amusing, though I can’t imagine either of them would.

(Yup. Mayonnaise. Or something hideously close to it.)

All of which made the football section of the bookstore a particularly weird place. With all the vast repertoire of different football books out there in all those languages available for translation, the football section contained a relatively slim 37 different monographs. Thirty-six of them were “how-to” books on training, tactics and conditioning; mostly, these were by local authors, with the exception for Charlie “Route One” Hughes’ book on football tactics, published by the English FA (which is either ominous or hilarious depending on your point of view). The other was a pictorial history of AC Milan.

A less intriguing line-up of books would be impossible to conceive. Even the most tedious and pedestrian of Beckham biographies would at least have brought Chinese readers some insight into some of the passion and culture associated with the game, but there was nothing, nada. This is Lobanovsky-ism run amok: the complete atomization of the game, an attempt at mastering of an art without appreciating its soul. There is probably an analogy here with the country’s approach to capitalism, but it’s a little beyond me at the moment as I’m well into my second Tsingtao to counteract the effects of the mayonnaise. I’m guessing, though, that Chinese authorities might look askance at passion and culture a l’anglaise.

All of which begs the question: just what do Real Madrid, Barca and ManU really think they are achieving with their visits here? I know they keep banging on about “reaping the Chinese market”…but to be blunt, what market? This ground is positively barren.

More after tonight’s zuqiu bisai (football match).

Huitou jian!


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Did you get the restaurant recommendation from Lonely Planet too?

Were there many basketball books? The stock answer to all "why do we bother with China" questions tends to be that "if we get even one tenth of one percent of the population interested, we will be swimming in yuan".

The key to getting the Chinese excited about football clearly lies in publicising the opportunities for gambling. I look forward to your future dispatches from Macao.

3:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The stock answer to all "why do we bother with China" questions tends to be that "if we get even one tenth of one percent of the population interested, we will be swimming in yuan"."

Which, as company after company seeking to "tap the Chinese market" has discovered, doesn't amount to much money.

The cold fact for most companies is that even as foreign markets (primarily in Asia) constitute an increasingly important area, and increasingly account for sales *growth*, it's still not a cash cow. What people don't seem to realize is that while more money is being made now than ever, a goodly part of that is for the same reason movie tickets cost more now than ever. Values are higher, foreign markets are important to *growth*, but actual revenue comes from established markets, and everyone is dealing with slimmer (by proportion) revenue increases.

That doesn't stop company spokesmen from glowing about the "huge prospects" in China, India and the rest of Asia, and in a sense they're being honest. These markets represent the lion's share of "what's left" out there to turn into developed customer bases. It's where they have to be. It's where new growth will come from. But these are not markets from which a sea change in revenue will be arriving.

8:09 AM  

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