China’s Hobby Renaissance

In the Hutong
Minding the store
2018 hrs.

One of the profound trends that is taking place across China today that I haven’t seen anybody pick up on is the rebirth of hobbies.

For much of China’s history, hobbies have been limited to a tiny elite with a lot of extra time on their hands. Most hobbies were cultural in nature (brush painting, collecting, gardening), but some in the merchant and mandarin classes had some eclectic interests (I’m speaking of the non-prurient variety, here. This is a family blog.) Hobbies, in other words, were not a part of China’s mainstream culture, and those that were – kite flying, bird raising, calligraphy – were considered by most Chinese to be something for old folks.

That has all begun to change over the past decade. Growing numbers of Chinese not only have the leisure time to pursue activities outside of work, family, and school, they also have the financial wherewithal to pursue their newfound avocations. Media are carrying more stories about hobbies, and the Internet makes information about their choice of hobbies readily accessible.

What is interesting about this is that hobbies create a new class of consumer for goods and services already available, and create entirely new markets for products that were never of much interest before.

Some examples:

  • For the first time, it is possible to obtain a civil pilot’s license as a non-professional, and to purchase and own an aircraft for private use.
  • Collecting militaria and military uniforms is an increasingly popular hobby among a startlingly diverse group of collectors, most of whom network online. And they’re not only buying Chinese items – they’re collecting from overseas as well, either via eBay or as a part of their travels.
  • Bicycling used to be about transportation in China, not recreation. No longer. Manufacturers from Giant to Trek have realized that a growing number of Chinese who ride to work in cars, busses, or trains want back on their bikes, either for exercise, competition, or adventure.
  • A growing number of Chinese are taking up SCUBA diving, despite the fact that few Chinese have ever even had swimming lessons. International organizations like PADI, the British Sub-Aqua club, and NAUI are setting up representation in China to work with the Chinese Underwater Association.
  • Outdoor activities generally are growing incredibly fast. Skiing, hiking, camping – all sports popular overseas but with little history in China – are growing quickly. Outside Magazine‘s China edition is now up to 200 pages per month, printed on what one reader described as “gorgeous, thick, glossy paper.” North Face, Sony, and Motorola are but a few of the advertisers who are either reaching out to the lifestyle or who are producing products that appeal to the specific hobbies Outside covers.

Here is a simple truth: if there is a hobby somewhere, somebody in China is practicing it, and the numbers are probably growing.

Some of the other hobbies that are showing early signs of major growth:

  • Gardening, both indoor and outdoor, is on the rise as more people buy homes and discover the value (both physical and therapeutic) of having plants in and around the home. The biggest issue here – knowledge, especially in the care and feeding of house plants.
  • Salt water and fresh water aquariums are also growing in popularity in part because of feng-shui, and in part because the sound of the pump and the fish is so soothing.
  • Scrapbooking, as a nation of people cut off from the memorabilia of their past by the paroxysms of the 20th century seeks to recapture and preserve what is left, and what they are creating now.
  • Collecting generally is big, and if Hong Kong has proven anything, it is that Chinese are avid collectors. Almost any type of collecting is growing except for stamp and coin collecting, which many seem to see as old or passe. (At the same time, those who are collecting stamps and coins have more money to spend, and so the hobby will grow in real dollar terms for some time, even as the new generation eschews it.)
  • Photography, which many are discovering through their cell phones, and which a growing number seek to step into more “pro-sumer” equipment.
  • In keeping with the switch of bicycle from transportation tool to recreational gear, cars and motorcycles are heading that way as well. In particular, after-market performance parts, body kits, finishes, and the like are growing quickly. We’re seeing the first modified cars on Beijing’s freeways, and even though the customized motorcycles tend to be limited to the CJ 750 (the BMW R71 in disguise), can choppers be far behind?

Watch for this trend to grow in importance over the next five years, and to begin to change the nature of several industries.

The question each of us needs to ask is this: how are China’s hobbyists going to change our business?


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
This entry was posted in Communicating Innovation. Bookmark the permalink.