On Yuppies, Nouveaux Riches

09 Jan 2006

How are American yuppies different from (Shanghainese) Chinese yuppies? This is a question I discussed with a Shanghainese friend recently.

I have to admit, I feel pretty unqualified to describe the modern American yuppy, since I’ve been living outside of the United States for so long. For example, in the year 2000, I might have put “talking on a cell phone wherever they go” in the list of yuppy behavior in Florida, but now that cell phones are so widespread, that just seems silly. Still, we were able to list just a few contrastive characteristics of both breeds of yuppy.

The American yuppy:

– has a big house in a gated community in the suburbs
– drives luxury sedans and (luxury) SUVs

The Shanghai yuppy:

– owns a home not far from the city center, lavishly decorated in a certain (quasi-European) style which includes certain ubiquitous features such as a prominently placed large-screen TV
– owns a car

What other contrastive features are there? I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to this kind of thing.

Aside from income level, what is the difference between the Chinese nouveau riche (暴发户) and the Chinese yuppy (雅皮士)? My friend replied that the stereotypical Chinese yuppy is interested in art, although he doesn’t really know what fine art is. The nouveau riche is not even interested. The yuppy tries to cultivate a style by carefully choosing fashionable brands based on a variety of sources of information, whereas the nouveau riche blindly buys whatever expensive brands he thinks are famous (such as Louis Vuitton). I think these kinds of differences are pretty obvious, but what I find interesting are specific examples. For example, do Shanghai yuppies eat at Pizza Hut, whereas Shanghai nouveau riches prefer super expensive Chinese food?

I’ll admit I don’t know a lot about all this, so I guess the main aim of this post is to elicit reader responses. Let me know what you think.


Related links:

TIME Asia: China’s Bouveau-Riche (photo essay)
TIME Asia: Wretched Excess
ESWN: The Most Popular Forum Post Ever In China (focuses on the Chinese nouveau riche)
China Daily: Nouveaux riches challenge one-child policy
World Watch: China’s Affluent Entering “Enjoy Now” Phase of Consumption

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. This link from time was great! (emphasis mine)

    Huang has built a display worthy of his splendid success: a $10 million replica of the White House. Huang, one of the richest men in China, wanders blissfully through a hall filled with portraits of America’s Presidents, then strides into the most hallowed room of all—the Oval Office. Every detail has been immaculately reproduced, from the $60,000 baroque sofa to the U.S. presidential seal on the carpet—naturally, made in China. “Everything you see here is just like Washington,” says Huang. “Only it’s all mine.”

    http://www.time.com/time/asia/covers/1101020923/story.html

    It’s all mine. That really sums it up. The new rich in China aren’t going on about how “cultured” or “noble” they are or any of that other BS. They aren’t collecting Japanese paintings like Larry Ellison (CEO of Oracle), or living modestly like Warren Buffet (CEO of Berkshire Hathaway) or Sam Walton (of Walmart). It’s not a mindset of becoming a huge philanthropist like Bill Gates (Chairman of Microsoft). No. The mindset is, “It’s all mine.

    Chinese Yuppies, on the other hand, are probably to be found sipping down mochachinos at really hip coffee shops. Yuppies are also way more into Hip-Hop. Rather than simply spending god-awful amounts of money because they can, Yuppies actually wanna be cool. I’m sure you already knew all that, though.

    Is Pizza Hut cool?

  2. Hmm, interesting question. One area to think about might the respective attitudes toward the poor.

    One major difference between a “yuppy” and a member of the “nouveaux riches” might be that people who are nouveau-riche have not yet cultivated a disdain for the economically disadvantaged. Nouveaux riches have not yet been accepted by any particular socio-economic group so their attitude to the poor has probably not changed much from the time before they were rich. Yuppies, on the other hand, seem pretty much actively hostile to those less fortunate than them, and perhaps that’s part of the transition process from nouveau-riche to yuppy and then god know where else.

  3. New-vo rich: Evil
    Yuppies: Evil

  4. So who’s not evil?

    Old money?
    Westerners from well-off (middle-class Western, which would be well-off by the standards of most of the world) backgrounds who can afford to look with disdain on folks not like them?

    I guess it’s better to inherit your wealth than to earn it.

  5. Mark,

    I wouldn’t say Pizza Hut is super fashionable in the PRC, as it’s been around a while already, but it has always been a pretty decent Western restaurant in the eyes of most Chinese, I think.

  6. Matt,

    Yuppies are more hostile toward the poor than nouveaux riches? I’ve encountered something of the opposite–in trying to distance themselves from whence they came, the nouveaux riches are over-hostile to the poor, whereas with yuppies there is at least a budding sense of social responsibility.

  7. From my two years of experience with nouveaux riches throughout clubland in China, I humbly think that 90% of them are worthless sacks of human shit. Yuppies can be equally annoying, but are not usually as grating. The people in clubs who aren’t there simply to be seen are the cool ones.

  8. John B,

    I think I was spouting off a bit there. My point should have only been that nouveaux riches have not yet had a chance to develop their sensibilities on the subject. Most likely, their feelings towards the poor–whether overly judgemental or not–have probably not changed much since they acquired their new wealthy standing. When you say that nouveaux riches are over-hostile to the poor, it makes me think that they are trying to prove their credentials and enter some kind of yuppy or old-money establishment. I would qualify this all-consuming “yearning to belong” as close to the essence of yuppiedom itself. Could someone be nouveau-riche and yuppie at the same time? Another thing that I think distinguishes nouveaux riches from yuppies is that people who are strictly nouveau-riche are concentating their efforts on looking rich and respectable (however garish the results), while yuppies are more concerned with defending the gates of upward mobility.

  9. When the revolution comes back, yuppies will make better farmers in Qinghai.

  10. As part of the nouveau rich, let me say it’s a lot of stress keeping the twenty-inch rims on my Santana clean, so you guys need to quit hating…well I’m off to buy some more clay brown shirts and shiny gold colored pants.

    PS. Has anyone seen my large, black man-purse? I think I put it down while I feeding cigarettes to monkeys at the zoo.

  11. Actually, it is better to inherit your money than to earn it — if comparing old money and new money counts for anything. I had a lot of labor jobs in my early 20s, and I can tell you there are 10 times as many assholes in the new money crowd. Old money has nothing to prove. New money is desparate to prove that they are no longer part of the common rabble, so they tend to have way more attitude.

    “nouveau-riche” is simply a description of a condition: you are newly rich. You could still watch NASCAR and have a mullet and be nouveau-riche or you could live on a yatch and drink chardonnay all day and be nouveau-riche. “Yuppy,” on the other hand, denotes a specific cultural group: young urban professionals. They don’t watch NASCAR or have mullets by definition. “Yuppy” is a more specific term.

    So in chinese terms, nouveau-riche could be some 土包子 who blows his nose on the curtains of his 5-star hotel. A yuppy is some 28-year-old who works for a foreign tech company.

    • New money is rude, boastful, ostentatious, and unrefined.

      Old money is cultured, subdued, subtle, and refined.

      The difference between new money and old money can be found between the (2) wealthy characters in the movie Wall Street. Gordon Gekko’s behavior resembles that of a Nouveau Riche (aka self-made). Sir Larry Wildman’s behavior resembles that of an Old Rich.

  12. “Everything you see here is just like Washington,” says Huang. “Only it’s all mine.”
    What bad taste! I’ll tell him that every day when I get rich, from my Graceland replica across the street.

  13. If you don’t have a replica of the Lincoln Memorial then how can you even begin to call yourself rich? Everybody knows the Lincoln Memorial is more beautiful than the Washington Memorial. I do envy his mini Mt. Rushmore though.

  14. jim:

    Reminds me of what my parents (both history teachers) pointed out: The worst, most ruthless, most sadistic founders of Chinese dynasties (who tortured and killed off the generals and advisors that fought for their kingdom) have all come from the common classes: Zhu Yuanzhuang (founder of the Ming), Liu Bang (to an extent), and Mao Zedong. Chiang Kai-Shek is the only plebeian founder of a new governing group that did go around killing his followers after he gained power. All the other dynasties that managed to control all of China (Qin, Wang Mang’s Xin, Eastern Han, Jin, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, and Qing) were all already some sort of members of the elite class.

  15. When I see these chinese nouveaux-rich,I can’t help but think of the old TV series “THE BEVERLY HILLBILLYS”. What’s the point of those jacked up HUMVEE’s with the stickers all over them,in Shanghai and Hangzhou? The streets aren’t that bad. You just look like a jackass with a tiny cocktail weenie. Where are you gonna drive that Ferrari where you can open it up and fully appreciate it. I just think of days of surfing perfect Honolua Bay,Hawaii with my friends and thinking “Gee,I wonder what all the millionaires are doing right now? Cuz there is no way they’re having as much fun as I am”

  16. Richard… you misunderstood… I just didn’t get around to them…

    old money: super evil… and lazy too

    anyone who’s willing to fit themselves into one of those categories sucks…

    you can be new money… you can be a young urban professional… you can be old money…. but just don’t act like the damn cliche.

  17. The fact that both you and our friend were actually discussing this topic definitely makes you two yuppies.

    What you described as traits of American yuppies are little off, actually quite a bit off. Yuppies don’t live in gated suburb community, they live in renovated lofts in newly gentrified downtown blocks; you will never find a yuppie drive a SUV, hybrid cars are IN, maybe a mini-cooper, with red/white racing stripes.

    Also, yuppies are so 1980s/90s, the new and correct terminology is Bobo, who has taken over the urban spotlight with their combination of Bourgeois capitalism ambition and Bohemian sensibilities.

  18. Most of my friends are exact replicas of Michael J. Fox from that 1988 classic, Bright Lights, Big City except they drive Mini Coopers that run on Fair Trade Yak milk. Red/white racing stripes on Mini Coopers is sooo Fall 2002

  19. Reminds me of what my parents (both history teachers) pointed out: The worst, most ruthless, most sadistic founders of Chinese dynasties (who tortured and killed off the generals and advisors that fought for their kingdom) have all come from the common classes: Zhu Yuanzhuang (founder of the Ming), Liu Bang (to an extent), and Mao Zedong. Chiang Kai-Shek is the only plebeian founder of a new governing group that did go around killing his followers after he gained power. All the other dynasties that managed to control all of China (Qin, Wang Mang’s Xin, Eastern Han, Jin, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, and Qing) were all already some sort of members of the elite class.

    Well, the founder of Qin, Ying Zheng, was a tyrant nonpareil (Sparta-like military state, murder of dissident scholars, academic oppression, drafting of civilians to war and the building of the Great Wall and other public works, etc), yet he came from princely stock.

  20. Oh right. I guess that should be amended to say “most ruthless and cruel to their own followers”.

  21. YUPPIE. I took a class at UCSC on the 80s and we actually studied yuppies. John, the two examples of luxury home with gated community and luxury SUV is all-American, from the white trash to the discerning yuppie, it really hits home when I’m at a stoplight in Concord, California, and I see six vehicles, all varying brands and consumer levels of SUV’s taking a left turn across the intersection.

    Yuppies came from the 1980’s New York City – think Wall Street – and you can get a good glimpse into the stereotypical lifestyle of the yuppie.

    After 20 years, yuppie culture is far and wide and has penetrated almost every aspect of the cultural landscape. Here’s yuppie, getting an Apple iPod. That’s about as mainstream and accessible as it gets.

  22. Are people aware of this story about an online standoff between a poncing nouveau-riche Shanghainese woman and a disdainful mystery man defending the “true” upper class? See if you think it’s real.

  23. Kay,

    Well, I’m aware of it enough to include it in the “Related Links” at the end of the post…

    I’m not sure if it’s real or not, but I just see it as a story. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s partly true… in none of those cases does it diminish my enjoyment of the story.

  24. Ha ha – sorry! I’m a fool. Yeah, it’s a great story.

  25. I ran across this funny little article today.

    “Chinese couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with an edge”

    “SHANGHAI (AFP) – Bored with the same old candlelit dinner, red roses and chocolate truffles on
    Valentine’s Day? Newly rich Chinese are looking to something decidedly more edgy — matching plastic surgery for him and her.”

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20060213/lfafp/afplifestylevalentine060213153429

  26. yves germain Says: January 15, 2008 at 5:41 am

    I think that it is very interesting to see that people can enjoy life to the fullest.

  27. […] On Yuppies, Nouveau Riches […]

  28. The Tianjinese Nouveaux Rich…

    I’m proud to be living in an area where there are local Chinese people and few other foreigners. I hear the local babble, which is still incomprehensible to me. I breathe in the authentic smells of street food, smelly tofu and precious heavy meta…

  29. […] This blog entry has another discussion on China’s nouveaux rich. […]

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