|Sponsored by Fendi
After twenty minutes, the train slowed down as it entered Shanhaiguan station. Shanhaiguan is
dominated by an impressive mountain range, the Yan Shan, which extends all the way to Beijing after emerging from the sea
here. This was a Chinese border town until the day in 1644 when Wu Sangui, a general in the Ming army,
opened the gates of the First Pass Under Heaven to allow the Manchu army to march through. Beijing, the seat of
the corrupt and dysfunctional Ming dynasty was but a few days march away on flat ground “this side” of the First
Shortly after leaving Shanhaiguan station, the “border” between civilisation and barbarianism
– as defined by the governments of the Ming dynasty – came into view. The Great Wall rises
almost out of the sea at Shanhaiguan, heads north and then west towards Beijing; snakes its way across the ridges and edges
of numerous mountain ranges before it at last, as if out of breath, crumbles into a pile of rubble near Jiayuguan Pass in
Gansu Province, some 6,700km from here.
the first brick was laid two and a half thousand years ago, The Great Wall has seen innumerable skirmishes, attacks, and counter-offensives.
These days there is a PR battle raging around its ramparts. On one side are the protectionists,
who believe that it should be a preserved as a sacred monument and that people should have access to only strictly limited
and tightly-controlled areas of it, where they should go to appreciate the national treasure.
On the other side of the battle line are the people who just want to go out there and enjoy
it. Enjoyment comes in many forms though. Some want the freedom to hike along its entire
length; some want to go there for a special moment with their lover; others want to dance and listen to music; while still
others want to crank up the enjoyment levels a few notches beyond that.
Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of The Great Wall. When asked during an interview with Playboy
magazine how he managed to entertain himself during the four months he was in China shooting some of the scenes for his Kill
Bill film project, he gushed: “The first time I went to the Great Wall of China it was like an all-night rave.
They had rock bands, fireworks. We were smoking pot and doing E. It was great.
Me and a bunch of the crew partied like rock stars all night. It’s a great way to see the
wall for the first time.”
Indeed, whatever the demand may be, these days in China, supply is quick to match it. And, sure
enough, some local-government offices have been cashing in on the money-making potential of “their” designated
section of The Wall. The admin office responsible for the Juyongguan section (to the north of Beijing),
for instance, decided to build a “Great Wall of Love” at the foot of the real Wall, where love-struck couples
could, for a hefty fee, carve their pledges of eternal devotion into “Great Wall stones.” Not
real ones, of course, but even so the China Daily was so incensed by this blasphemous act (reportedly perpetrated by two couples
on Valentine’s Day) that it published an article titled “Great Wall demands respect not pricey love oath,”
which was brimming with indignation: They even went to the trouble of commissioning a satirical cartoon
to underline their displeasure. The sketch depicts a “love brick” vendor, in a booth on the
top of a Great Wall, shouting out, “stones for sale at 999 yuan each,” (about £65) to bemused Ming dynasty
The same article gets even more worked up when it gets on to the subject of “a crazy rave
party” that was staged at the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall in Hebei Province, where “Some participants
were involved in such indecent and illegal activities as urinating and drug abuse on the wall.” This
event – the 8th annual event at Jinshanling (held in July, 2005) – was described in an earlier article
by the same paper as a “wild dancing party,” and a “Great Wall orgy,” which left the “…epitome
of ancient Chinese civilization…in a chaotic mess,” as evidenced, according to the newspaper, by “the strong
smell of excreta left by partygoers.”
These days, the government-controlled media is keen to rope in the views of “angry netizens” to bolster
its stance. One such unnamed individual is quoted as saying, “How dare they tramp brazenly on the
national pride by injuring our Great Wall?” Clearly, the government was less than happy when it found
out that the local government officials in Hebei province, who are responsible for the Jinshanling section had, back in 1997,
sold the management rights for fifty years to a Hebei commercial organisation for six million yuan. The
China Daily rounded off its piece by asking rhetorically, “Can the Wall stand up to ‘naughty deeds’ by people
that long? [ie until 2047].” Not surprisingly, the agreement couldn’t survive the scrutiny
that was whipped up by the article, and that particular “Rave party on the Great Wall” – as the event was
touted by the organisers (at 200 to 400 yuan for a ticket) – has not played since. So, if Mr Tarantino
returns to Beijing, he may just have to look elsewhere for his entertainment. Then again, various ad hoc
parties continue to flout the ill-defined rules, so perhaps he wouldn’t have to search that hard. As
with most things here, if you have the right guanxi, and are prepared to pay the right price, then impossible really
Far from being put off by the hand wringing and talk of “lack
of respect” for and commercialisation of The Wall, the officials responsible for the Juyongguan section have, instead,
raised the stakes significantly. They have traded in their much-criticised “love bricks” for
something a tad more upmarket – a fashion show with, arguably, the world’s longest catwalk. What’s
more, Fendi, the Rome-based fashion house, managed to stage their show on The Wall while the recent five-yearly Communist
Party Congress was still in session, and they somehow wangled a police escort from downtown Beijing for their well-heeled
“Angry netizens” may indeed grimace at the thought of 88 super models wearing high
heels capable of exerting a stone-crushing amount of pressure per square inch as they strut about on the ancient
structure’s well-trodden steps, but nothing it seems was further from the mind of one guest who is described by the
San Francisco Chronicle as a “Hong Kong socialite.” This "socialite" was so
moved by the occasion that she told the newspaper: “This is the first time I’ve ever done the Great Wall –
and I did it in heels!” The invitees’ cooing was undoubtedly music to the ears of Fendi’s
chief executive, Michael Burke, who told the newspaper that the fashion house had spent a year “coordinating”
the event with various government offices including the People’s Liberation Army, the mayor of Beijing, the Ministry
of Culture, and even the Ministry of Antiquities. Now that’s what I call serious guanxi
|The double F ("Fun Furs"): "I never dreamt that one day..."
And the cost of this mammoth extravaganza? Reportedly a cool US$10m no less – quite a bit more than the
price of a “love brick” – but then again, 80 employees were flown in for the event, 600 guests were served
Don Perignon, furniture was shipped in from Italy and Karl Lagerfeld had a backstage interview suite built for him.
But, hold on a moment, Fendi only has ten stores in mainland China. Some accountants may conclude that, at US$1 million
“per store,” the cost of the show was somewhat steep. But I doubt that the brand owners of Fendi would evaluate
their investment in this way. I am sure they think that US$10m is a good price to pay for a show that will, over time,
change the way the Chinese press and key sections of the Chinese public think about the Fendi brand.
After all, in what is destined to be the most important luxury
goods market on the planet, you simply have to make the right impression – which means having the balls, as well as
the budget, to do something that cuts through the clutter of mediocrity.
Lagerfeld knows a thing or two about making a splash, but even he seemed genuinely awestruck when he talked about the event:
“It’s all about the logo: I first drew the double F 40 years ago, when I wanted to inject in some humour and it
meant Fun Furs. I never dreamt that one day it would illuminate miles of The Great Wall,” reports Fashion Wire Daily.
So many miles,
in fact, that Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), which owns Fendi, reportedly quipped
that this would be the only fashion show that could be seen from the moon.
The controversy surrounding the commercialisation of the Great Wall is also, I believe, a brand
issue. It’s not that the “central authorities” object to making money out of The Wall. On the
contrary, with up to 72,000 visitors per day paying 45 yuan (about £3) to visit the Badaling section alone, The Wall
is clearly one of the biggest cash cows in China. The government – Brand China's stewards – is
concerned, however, at the “wrong kind” of association. “Love bricks” and rave parties do nothing
whatsoever to increase its brand value (ie the value people attach to it). If you’ve never been to China, you
probably have a rather romantic notion of The Wall; a notion that could tip the balance when it comes to deciding where
in the world to go for a holiday.
Some of the 90,300 images that appeared when I searched Google
Images for “China Great Wall wild rave party” may,
for some, load the scales in favour of an alternative destination. There will be those of course whose resolve
to come here would be strengthened by such publicity, but my guess is that they would be in the minority. It’s
the same with tacky “love bricks.” They are not the kind of thing that potential customers of Brand China want
to see. This really is the crux of the matter; The Wall is so closely associated with China that it could easily
be its logo. If The Wall is devalued then, automatically, Brand China is also diminished to some extent. Conversely,
by reinforcing the Walls' credentials – of, say, “mystery, endurance, steadfastness, and magnificence”
– then those very characteristics of Brand China are also bolstered.
But, if you are the brand manager of Brand China, you may not be satisfied
with merely reinforcing people’s perspectives of the traditional strengths of the brand. You may want, instead, to
steer the brand towards an altogether more contemporary direction – to reposition it so to speak. To swap
“endurance” for “chic” for instance; and what about making people think about “progressiveness”
before they think “steadfastness.” Hence, perhaps, China's brand stewards' enthusiasm for Fendi’s
proposal, and why it was considered entirely appropriate that the heavily branded fashion show should be held during
the party meeting, at which China’s future – at least for the next five years – was mapped out.
|The building blocks of Brand China
|Fendi storm the Great Wall
New Year revellers