Entrepreneurial '50s fad sets the masses aswirl

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 31, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- A young worker recently turned up at a hospital with a curious malady: twisted intestines. He was only one in a string of victims of the latest craze in China's capital: hula hooping.

Thirty-four years after the baby boom generation in the United States forsook the hoops for other diversions, the brightly colored plastic rings have cropped up in Beijing with startling suddenness.

The eagerness with which the fad has been embraced here is testimony both to a lingering naivete from China's long isolation before the 1980s and to the spiraling growth since then of an ever more sophisticated consumer culture.

The hoops are commonly known here as "body-building hoops." They first appeared in Beijing around the Chinese New Year's in early February, and ever since then no street scene has been complete without at least one.

Department stores report selling hundreds a day at about $1.20 each, an average day's pay for a city dweller.

Entrepreneurs peddle them from carts. Parents cram into the city's crowded buses with the hoops looped over their shoulders. Children block narrow alleys as they swirl them around and around.

The hoops are a hit because much of urban China's focus these days is much the same as the developed world's: the pursuit of a good time, a healthier life and, of course, keeping up with the neighbors.

"It's good exercise," an elevator operator says after swaying through 120 revolutions during one of her many on-the-job breaks. "It's a trend. They are all doing it -- so we also do it."

In line with the long-held but little practiced socialist dictum of following the masses, China's official media have also hopped on the bandwagon with typical earnestness.

The army newspaper pridefully reported that a secretary in a military regiment set a Chinese record: 6,300 spins without stopping. Calculating at one spin a second, that meant the secretary twirled non-stop for 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Beijing's evening newspaper was so moved by the craze that it invoked a classical Chinese poem: "The spring breeze invites blossoming peach flowers overnight on tens of thousands of trees."

Of course, China's state organs could not avoid dampening the fun by turning instructive. Injuries from too much hooping have been spotlighted.

Sports and medical experts have called for moderation and for strict adherence to correct twirling.

And in these times in which all things in China must undergo further "reform," the hoops' abrupt capture of the public's fancy has also been offered as an economic morality tale.

The entrepreneur who appears most responsible for bringing the hoops to Beijing is Yan Bing, a 34-year-old who left China in 1989 and now claims Peruvian citizenship.

Mr. Yan returned last year to set up a company in the nearby city of Tianjin to capitalize on his world travels.

"When I first saw the hoops hanging in garages in the United States, I didn't understand them," he said. "But then I realized this would be an ideal, low-cost sports game for China."

His firm's name, Rui--i, roughly translates to "sharply achieve reality," but success was not that easy. He first worked with a state factory in Beijing, but that company failed to sell the initial production to schools and immediately gave it all away.

Mr. Yan did not give up. He put ads on Tianjin television, distributed videos of gymnasts using the hoops and sponsored competitions. When the fad finally took off, he left his state

partner far behind, selling several hundred thousand hoops in the first months of this year.

"This story has food for thought for all of us," Beijing's main newspaper told its readers after paraphrasing the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun-tzu:

"If we view the market as a castle, then before we charge that castle we must first make a psychological attack. The minds we are attacking are in fact the minds of the consumers."

But Mr. Yan has little time for such analysis. At least 20 other companies have now moved into China's hoop market.

And on the capital's streets, there already are signs that the hoops' days may be numbered. The most certain of these portents is the increasing number of sightings these days of small slabs of wood resting on wheels -- devices known in the West as skateboards.

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