February 16, 2011 / 5:59 AM / 7 years ago

"Sport of kings" looks to China's elite

<p>Pierre Henri (L) of France fights for the ball against John Fisher of Hong Kong during their match of Asia Snow Polo Tournament at Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin municipality February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic</p>

TIANJIN, China (Reuters Life!) - Asia’s first ever snow polo tournament went into its second day on Wednesday at China’s newest and largest polo club, with six top global teams promoting the luxury sport to the nation’s new and growing ranks of wealthy.

Though an early form of polo was once popular with China’s upper classes during the Tang dynasty more than a thousand years ago, the sport of kings died out almost entirely until a recent surge of interest in foreign sports seen as being high class.

The first generations of new wealthy spawned by China’s economic reforms are likely to view golf, red wine and Ferrari as symbols of prestige, but many of the newer generation are looking for something more.

“We have so many international players from all over the world coming together in this area,” Chevy Beh, a 23-year-old player on the Hong Kong team, told Reuters Television.

“I think that is a good way to promote polo in China.” The “Snow Polo Challenge,” which kicked off on Tuesday, is being held on a pitch covered with artificial snow in the Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin, an industrial port city 90 minutes drive from Beijing.

Teams from England, Argentina, France, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong galloped through the powdery snow, watched by business executives, government officials and invited media.

With no home-grown team, mainland China is represented by the polo team from Hong Kong, the former British colony, where polo is played avidly.

“I don’t think it’s that common yet,” said Qiu Yuanyuan, a business development officer from HSBC bank.

<p>Pablo Jaurenche (2nd R) of Argentina reaches for the ball as players of Australia chases during their match of Asia Snow Polo Tournament against Australia at Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin municipality February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic</p>

“There may be a lot of high-level people who have made a lot of money very quickly, but that doesn’t mean they have reached a level of culture where they can appreciate this.”

Some recent attempts at launching polo clubs in China have been criticized for lacking expertise, with observers suggesting they were nothing more than window-dressing for high-end property developments.

Rowland K. Wong, the Singaporean president of Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, was happy for the club to add value to the unfinished real estate that looms over it. He and his company say they have invested 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in the development, which includes high-rise apartments and villas.

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The club, housed in a vast neo-classical style hotel with 167 gold and marble-clad rooms, is reaching completion at the center of the 220-acre site.

Members can wine, dine, enjoy bespoke spa treatments and take a dip in the marble pool, yet to be filled. Membership starts at 380,000 yuan ($58,000) and rises to 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) for patrons who own their own teams.

The club has 60 horses of its own, imported from Australia, and members’ horses can be stabled in a state-of-the-art block with central heating, an insecticidal fogging system and an indoor arena for schooling.

The club declined to say how many members it has so far, but Derek Reid, the head polo professional at the club, said he was confident of the Chinese market.

“I think once the Chinese start riding and playing polo, there’s enough resources in China that we can get enough people involved,” he said.

“Polo’s the game of kings and it’s still the king of games.”

Editing by Elaine Lies

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