What crisis? China's billionaires live it up
Beijing's Jinbao Street is the must-visit address for billionaires with yuan to burn. Once a maze of alleys, the 800-metre (yard) stretch of road is now home to Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Gucci, Cartier, the exclusive Hong Kong Jockey Club and several five-star hotels.
"Our customers are 100 percent Chinese, and very rich," explained Wilson Ho, managing director for Lamborghini, as he showed off a sparkling white Murcielago convertible, which can hit 325 kilometres (200 miles) an hour.
Ho, who also represents Bugatti and Rolls-Royce in the Chinese capital, describes his clients as "successful entrepreneurs from the property business, entertainment, the financial sector, coal mining and steel manufacturing".
"They are very, very young -- a majority of them are in their early 20s," he said.
"For some people here, money is nothing, they come and they buy a car in one hour... and they settle the payment in full. We're talking about cars that are six, seven, eight million yuan!"
The Shanghai-based Hurun Report earlier this month published a list of the country's 1,000 richest people -- many of whom made their fortunes in real estate and the stock market, and 130 of whom are dollar-billionaires.
The collective net worth of the 1,000 totalled 571 billion dollars by September 15 of this year -- more than the entire gross domestic product of Indonesia or Belgium.
"China's wealth is growing at breakneck speed," said Rupert Hoogewerf, the founder of the Hurun Report, noting that China has the most known dollar billionaires after the United States.
Beijing is the world's number three market for Rolls-Royce after Dubai and Abu Dhabi -- 52 Phantoms were sold here in 2008, one per week, with a price tag of seven to 10 million yuan (1-1.5 million dollars), depending on the model.
Ho said some wealthy Chinese were "car fanatics", describing the demand for luxury sports cars as "huge... some have maybe 10 cars in the garage".
"For rich people, this is just pocket money," said Ho. "They are billionaires!"
In another well-heeled shopping area of Beijing, Chinese customers crowd into the city's biggest Louis Vuitton boutique -- three stories high -- bringing armfuls of purchases to the cash register.
The French luxury brand, which opened on average one store a month in China this year, hailed its "exceptional performance" in the Asian giant, which state media says has become the world's number two luxury goods consumer after Japan.
At Cartier, a saleswoman in white gloves arranges a showcase where a massive white gold watch encrusted with diamonds is on display. Price tag -- 185,000 dollars.
"Our business is very good in China," says shop manager Bonnie Bao. The jeweller opened 11 stores in China last year and will set up eight more in 2009, according to its Hong Kong office.
"Our clients are very rich. Many buy without looking at the price," Bao said.
In another boutique owned by a French luxury brand, a saleswoman -- who asked that neither she nor the shop be identified as she was not authorised to speak to the press -- said 99 percent of customers were Chinese.
"We really did not get the impression that our clientele was affected in any way by the economic crisis," she said. "There are more and more customers in China who can afford to enter our universe."
At the lavish Baroque-style Lan Club, dreamed up by French design darling Philippe Starck, revellers -- 70 percent of them Chinese -- are not exactly suffering either.
The restaurant's best bottle of cognac goes for 5,400 dollars, a 1995 Chateau-Lafite costs 3,650 dollars and a platter of fresh shellfish goes for 775 dollars.
Back in Jinbao Street at the exclusive Jockey Club, where membership costs a crisp 36,600 dollars, the ambiance is muted -- mobile phones do not ring, the carpets are thick and the scent of fresh-cut lilies fills the air.
The 450 employees must know not only the names of all 300 members -- almost all of whom are Chinese -- but which type of tea they prefer. The club once brought in tailors from Italy to make suits for the clientele.
"The rich people in China are already past the point of showing off -- they now know how to use their wealth to have a better lifestyle and enjoy life in a more private space," said assistant public relations manager Chris Chen.
"This place is not bling-bling luxury. Members don't want to be disturbed -- some of our members are celebrities from TV, movies, entertainment, but here they can be very relaxed." by Pascale Trouillaud
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