By Patricia Castro Obando
How do you picture “alpaca” in Chinese characters? With the December 2017 inauguration of the official store of the Peruvian Alpaca brand in a prestigious Beijing mall, and the launching a month later of an online store with Peruvian alpaca clothes and accessories, a language game became reality with the faraway and mysterious alpaca as its protagonist. A clever effort to evade Chinese censorship ended up popularizing the soft touch of alpaca and led to an outstanding commercial success.
It all began with the tale of the “Grass Mud Horse” at the beginning of 2009— created by the denizens of the Internet to defy censorship through sound-alike words typical of the Chinese language. Alpacas—the animals—were totally unknown in the land of the dragons, but Chinese social media created a character of a quasi-mythical beast that became a banner-carrier for freedom of expression in China. And the mythical animal became associated with a real one—the alpaca in the faraway Andes.
In the magical world of the Internet—much more magical in China where “seditious” postings simply disappear—the story of the “Grass Mud Horse” was born, the first of a series of “the ten mythical creatures of Baidu,” a type of alpaca that supposedly inhabits the “Gobi Mahler” desert. Its enemy was the River Crab, who wore three wristwatches and had invaded the creature’s turf to devour its grassland. At the end of the story, the Grass Mud Horse defeats the River Crab and expels him and his three wristwatches forever.
What seemed to be a children’s story turned into the Chinese Internet users’ tricky way of challenging the capacity of the censors to detect and control ciphered messages. By changing tones and relying on a slight shift in the written characters, “Caonima,” the Chinese name for the “Grass Mud Horse,” is morphed into a huge insult, with the alleged reference to the desert instead becoming the Chinese name for the female sexual organ.
The enemy at which these punsters were aiming their darts was already well known in the rural slang, where to call someone “a crab” refers to a braggart who uses force to gain power, a practice that often occurs in regions far from the central authority. With a masterly mixture of tones and characters in the Chinese names, the cyberspace parody turns the river crab’s “three wristwatches” or “Sangebiao” into “Three Represents” and “Harmonious Society,” political concepts invented by Chinese leaders.
“Three Represents” was the principle formulated by then-General Secretary of the Community Party Jiang Zemin in 2002 that officially opened the doors of the country to a new wave of business entrepreneurs. Two decades after the start of the process of reform and the opening of 1980, the already existing economic disparity between regions was accentuated. To alleviate the social tensions caused by this uneven growth, Chinese leader Hu Jintao brought back the traditional concept of “harmony” in 2005, calling for the construction of a society and world free from disagreement and dissent.
Harmony imposed by decree brought with it a radical increase in repression in 2008, the same year the Olympic Games took place in Beijing. Chinese social media was “harmonized,” a euphemism to announce the elimination of publications that protested against the Chinese authoritarian system. It was in this context that the “Grass Mud Horse” came into being.
With the complicity of words that sound alike and the aspect of sweetness and innocence that contrasted with its name in Chinese, the alpaca became a celebrity. A wide range of personalized products, as well as photos, videos, illustrations and online games deluged the Internet forums and went from there to retail stores. A children’s video with real alpacas had more than a million views on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01RPek5uAJ4), when YouTube was still allowed in China. Children found special pleasure in cuddling toy alpacas stuffed with the actual fiber, which were slowly beginning to be commercialized in China.
The Chinese name for alpaca might have eluded the censors, but the soft texture of the fabric attracted children and grabbed the attention of local merchants. At the end of 2008 and all throughout 2009, the imports of fine-combed alpaca products surged in the Chinese market. Peru became the major supplier, since it has at least four million alpacas, the largest quantity in South America. In 2010, 59 percent of Peruvian alpaca fiber exports went to China.
Alpaca Takes off on Chinese Fashion Runways
The Peruvian Embassy in Beijing and PromPerú, a Peruvian governmental export commission, organized the first alpaca clothing fashion show in 2013. It featured 24 pieces by Chinese-Peruvian designer Sumy Kujon. Subsequently, the collections of Mirva Trujillo (Qaytu), Henry Vela (Velavera) and José Miguel Valdivia (JMV), among other Peruvian designer brands, were featured on Chinese runways.
These fashion shows—four in total by 2017—highlighted the high quality of Peruvian clothing, not just its textiles. Peruvian alpaca was especially popular in the north of China, where winters are very cold. Other natural high-quality fibers such as cashmere and mohair competed with alpaca in market share, as all were popular with sophisticated local consumers who demanded good value and original designs. But the anti-censorship symbolism was swift to give alpaca an upper hand.
The 2014 ExpoPerú in Beijing—the largest Peruvian export event overseas—consolidated the presence of Peru as a guarantor of quality and creativity. That same year, the cooperation of PromPerú with the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT) led to a series of agreements allowing several prestigious Chinese designers to participate in Perú Moda—the most important fashion fair in Peru—and also led in internships in China for young Peruvian designers such as Silvia Paredes and Vania Tafur.
In the three years following that expo, Peruvian exports of alpaca fiber continued to increase, driven by Chinese demand. This growth was sustained by an increase in production and export prices. Between January and November 2017, the primary destination for Peruvian exports was China, going from US$15.1 million in 2016 to US$48 million in 2017, registering an increase of 217 percent. Peru is the world producer and exporter of alpaca fiber, producing 4,500 tons of fiber annually with 60 percent exported.
The Alpaca Store in Beijing
Peruvian alpaca fashion became solidly positioned in December 2017 with the opening of a multibrand store run by the Chinese firm World Link and with the official inauguration of an online pavillion of Peruvian alpaca products at the gigantic Jingdong (JD.com), the main Chinese direct-sales online platform (E-tailer). JD boasts 413 million online shoppers and more than 198 million active clients. It is expected that Peruvian firms will take in US$1.5 million yearly through this online platform.
Just as in the physical store, the virtual store is under the umbrella of the Peruvian Alpaca “Alpaca del Perú” brand, and the clothes sport a label with this logo as a symbol of authenticity and quality. Both projects testify to the high value that Peruvian alpaca products have reached in China. During the opening of the physical store, World Link founder Huang Minghui said before hundreds of leaders in the Chinese textile sector that he “felt very satisfied to bring the warmth of the Andes to China.”
In a ceremony held hours before the store inauguration in the historic Beijing Hotel near the Forbidden City, the World Link group received authorization for the use of the official brand “Alpaca del Perú.” This Chinese firm has invested in the first multibrand Peruvian shop, located in the emblematic Wangfujing Mall’s World Link works with the Commercial Office of Peru in Beijing (OCEX Beijing) and PromPerú to spotlight alpaca clothing and accessories produced in this Andean country, in this highly competitive Chinese market.
Fashion shows in the store windows and two live alpacas in a corral in front of the shop greet well-off consumers. In this manner, “Alpaca de Perú” and World Link work to commercialize the products of six Peruvian firms through a network of contacts that includes malls, import groups, well-known designers and other key people in Chinese society.
Alpaca has also helped to drive the commercial relationship for other products. At this time, China makes up 26 percent of the country’s exports, ten percent more than Peru exports to the United States. Thus, between January and May 2018, exports reached US$5.3 billion, the highest number ever achieved for the first five months of the year. According to official sources, this is because of the increase in textile shipments, including alpaca, to China.
Alpaca in China has also shifted its language identity. “Grass Mud Horse” is now stuck in some older corner of the Internet, while in the country’s elegant malls and on its fashion runways, alpaca shines with its official name in Chinese, “yangtuo,” although its palindrome “tuoyang” is still admitted. In the collective Chinese imagination, the Andean animal is now described as something like a goat, which is “yang,” and a camel, which is “tuo,” but never again like a horse—especially one made of grass and mud.
Patricia Castro Obando is a Peruvian journalist and a doctoral candidate in Anthropology who has lived in China for the past 15 years. She was the correspondent for the Peruvian El Comercio in Beijing. @chinaes1planet