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Where Less is More

Sep
7
2007

A trend is a trend in China when it hits the radar of state radio. A few weeks ago, inside a taxi smushed in midday traffic, the voice of a Beijing radio announcer was heard holding forth on the advent of China’s le huo zu, or “happy living set”. A not-so-happy cab driver broke in from time to time, snorting expletives at other drivers. But from what could be heard of her giddy monotone, the announcer stated:

…le huo refers to a trend known in the West as LOHAS. LOHAS stands for for ‘lifestyles of health and sustainability’. So-called Lohasians (le huo zu) choose greener and more charitable forms of production and consumption than ordinary people in society. Often these people like to publicize their lifestyle. They feel that it is more suitable to the conditions of development in the 21st century…

She went on:

After yuppie, BOBO and so on, LOHAS is the latest Western buzzword to describe cosmopolitan lifestyles. In Chinese we call LOHAS le huo [lit. ‘enjoy living’], a transliteration that sounds similar to LOHAS. The meaning of LOHAS actually goes far deeper, however. As to who coined the term le huo, that is difficult to say…

Finally:

It is understood that currently in the United States, one of every four people is a Lohasian. In Europe, about one person out of three is. In China, this new force is getting stronger every day, though it can be associated with only a very small minority of high-income people with high levels of education…

And even they remain by and large foreign to the argot, an unscientific sample poll has since suggested. But high flyers here in the capital are definitely down with the concept. Key “LOHAS” into Baidu, China’s most popular homegrown search engine, and, sure enough, nearly 180,000 Chinese-languange entries crop up as of this writing, almost 20,000 more than two weeks earlier. Google.cn lists over four million. Chinese discussion of the term seem to have originated, as is common, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas communities elsewhere. But the majority of listings now come from the mainland, and date from just the past few months.

A LOHAS conversion of the masses? Domestic commentators are rightly unconvinced. But the standards by which they judge are notably high. Some present as LOHAS as a whole new life force, an enlightenment, a cultural revolution of sorts. Only a small number of observers characterize LOHAS as concretely as Wikipedia, which grounds the term firmly in its roots. LOHAS is sociologist Paul Ray’s neologism for the marketplace of companies and consumers who are motivated by health, environmental and Good Samaritan concerns, and try to practice “responsible capitalism” in response. In the U.S. alone, by the “conservative” estimate of Web forum lohas.com, this market segment is now worth over $200 billion a year. We’re talking about the full range of holistic niceties, from solar heating to aborigonal knitware.

Many of which are already growing industries here. But then again, what isn’t? Beijing’s uppity east side of Beijing is now home to a recently opened natural foods outpost, LOHAS City. I’ve just run into an ex-colleague whose friend, a young Chinese media exec, has drawn up plans for an e-magazine dedicated to everything LOHAS. Unfortunately for him, the domain name lohaschina.com, a largely undeveloped site, has already been taken. It belongs to New York-based houseware designers Bambu.

America is the “developed” market, China the “derivative” one. So the gimmicky phrases we at first adopt to describe cultural currents end up doing much more to drive the trends once exported to China. So it is with LOHAS in the booming metropolises. There the appeal is obvious right now, given the glaring ills of the country at large. Slums. Sweatshops. Smog. Sludge. E-waste. Ego projects. Cancer. Diabetes. AIDS. SARS. And now, worldwide, food and drug scares. Lead-lined toys. Toxic clouds and other ecological horror stories that are untold – because no one’s found them yet. LUAU – unhealthy and unsustainable – might be a better acronym to describe it. So China’s critics ask, with good reason, when the party will end.

The Party is not blind to this. It’s no coincidence that Beijing has been talking LOHAS in its own right for quite a few years now. Think “Green Beijing, Green Olympics,” a mantra of the 2008 Games. Think “Harmonious Society” and “Scientific Development Concept”, the two canonical watchwords of leader Hu Jintao. The terms are politically correct code for a more responsible and equitable kind of capitalism. Relief measures like the scrapping of farming taxes have helped. But on the whole translating Party prescriptions into effective solutions has proven a folly. Online, darkly humorous parodies of the Party catchphrases abound. When invoked by official organs, they tickle most people’s ears in ironically funny ways (if at all).

If Lohasian-style consumerism is to change China for real, the experience will be seriously painful for everyone involved. It will start with the panicked mommies and daddies of the world, Lohasian or not, who still depend on China’s cheap exports, and trickle down to foreign corporations. And then on to big Chinese manufacturers. And, finally to their sub-contractors and local government regulators, the most problematic link in the supply chain, more concerned with guaranteeing local jobs, tax bases, grey income and GDP figures than with “scientific development”. As for domestic consumers, oneChinese blogger forecast the trickle-down two years ago, borrowing from Deng Xiaoping’s call call for some folks to get rich first: “Let some of the people get LOHAS first!”

And LOHAS they’re going – to a point. While the Party broadsheets tout “scientific development” and “harmonious society”, China’s biggest mouthpiece of LOHAS and le huo is a glossy magazine publishing house, Trends Media Group, which among other things publishes Chinese language editions of a dozen big-name Western titles. In recent spreads translated from their English-language affiliates, they’ve advised readers to make some tough changes.

Harper’s Bazaar proposed “Life Detox”, a tattered all-white look comprising an LV jacket, a Valentino dress, and a Chanel skirt. Cosmo Bride prescribed “home spas” and yoga to relieve the pressures of wedding preparations. Good Housekeeping drew up solutions to “greener living”, such as fixing the leaky faucet and installing energy-saving light bulbs. Esquire covered the Hash House Harriers, that famed non-profit club for the “beer drinker with a running problem.” Autostyle previewed the BMW Hydrogen 7.

Someone at Trends must have noted the recurring theme of LOHAS. Two weekends ago, the group held its annual company soiree to mark the 14th annversary of the group’s founding. This year the was themed “Lohas Night” (le huo zhi ye). A friend who works as an executive with one of the magazines had an extra pass, and invited me along. His English first name, incidentally, is More (a derivation of his Chinese name pronounced with a Beijing twang). In proportion to age and height, More, go figure, used to be about the tubbiest Chinese person I knew. But in the last few years he has taken up lap swimming, and now there’s a lot less of More. His skin has gone bronze as well.

In conjunction with the anniversary festivities that night, August 18, Trends had asked readers online to pledge to go LOHAS for the day. They became eligible for a prize by entering into an agreement to abide by the following:

1) “…wear only natural fabrics (such as raw cotton or silk)”

2) “…not use plastic bags”

3) “…give family members a warm hug before leaving the house in the morning”

4) “…not smoke that day”

5) “…consume only organic foods”

6) “…make a warm breakfast for the family”

7) “…turn the air conditioner to 26C or higher

8) “…not drive that day.”

This I only became aware of during my subsequent research, not as a result of attending the party.

Trends had arranged for minibuses to the event, but like most other partygoers More and I drove. The party was held about 10 miles south of town in the development zone of Yizhuang, at a pavillion space on landscaped grounds around a sport stadium that had been put to little use. It served as the parking lot for the evening, while opposite a bridged country road cutting through the complex was the scene of the party. Arriving guests walked under this bridge. Atop it, a collection of local peasants gathered to observe the proceedings below. Security guards stood at attention in between.

More introduced me to one of Trends top executives. He took note of my part-time status as a U.S. media correspondent, and gripped my hand for a few seconds without shaking it. Then, unprompted, he delivered his own personal message of sustainability. “As you know the media in China exist in a unique environment,” he started. “We do the best we can to thrive in that environment.” Then he moved on to his celebrity guests.

Tempatures at cocktail hour must have exceeded 90-degrees. I went through half a stack of paper napkins wiping the sweat off my brow. So thank goodness for the air conditioning inside the pavillion.

Once inside, up on stage, a LOHAS propaganda programme got rolling. Like the Communist Party’s successive theories of modern socialism, le huo had to be unpacked for the masses. TV hostess Zeng Baoyi, daughter of a Hong Kong mob film star, broke it down into three axioms: Look Good. Feel Good. Do Good. Other stars were then called upon to explain these abstruse principles via personal testimonies.

As we ate a modern dance company of well-toned youths in ascetic garb danced “Water and Clouds”. Their sublime movements recalled “Mighty Aphrodite”, given the context of this ridiculous affair. Smokers congregated in the corners, while other Trends people busied about intra-company networking, and reporting on “Lohas Night” itself. Among them was Lu Ping, fashion and accessories editor for the Trends Web site Yoka.com. I asked the college graduate with pigtails and dark-rimmed glasses to give me her take on the le huo zu.

“Well, of course it’s still important to work hard and so on. But you shouldn’t kill yourself just to make money or get promoted to high post. There’s more to life.”

Like paper bikinis. These were worn by tall, healthy and sustainably lean models from New Silk Road, one of China’s elite agencies. They donned a complete line of concept wear crafted entirely from paper (pictures here). The coup de grace: a montrous ball gown made from enough material to print a full tabloid. It was white and black and, with Trends magazine pages folded in – read all over.

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