Pigeon fancier Chen Shiyi poses in his loft in Yiwu, eastern China
Pigeon fancier Chen Shiyi at his loft in Yiwu, eastern China

An elite group of Chinese pigeon fanciers have pushed the prices of racing birds to record highs, reflecting a mood of exuberance among China’s wealthy following a pick-up in economic growth and asset prices that has buoyed luxury spending.

Xing Wei, a property tycoon, paid €400,000 ($490,000) to purchase a Belgian pigeon called Nadine, in what is thought to be the largest deal on record. He followed that with a Rmb3m ($475,000) purchase of a champion bird called Extreme Speed Goddess at a Beijing auction in December.

“When rewards are high, brave men must emerge,” said Chen Shiyi, the latter bird’s breeder, fresh from a visit to a loft at his cosmetics company’s headquarters in the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu, which houses hundreds of cooing pigeons.

Higher property and equities prices helped the wealth of China’s 2,000 richest people increase nearly 13 per cent last year, according the country’s top rich list. The number of people known to possess assets above $300m grew faster last year than any other in the previous decade, said Rupert Hoogewerf, the compiler of the list.

After years of declines following the anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping in 2012, sales of luxury goods in China grew 20 per cent last year, according to business consultancy Bain. Art auction sales in Shanghai saw 42 per cent growth last year, according to consultancy ArtTactic.

Pigeon industry insiders say just half a dozen enthusiasts are responsible for largest sales. “Five years ago Rmb300-Rmb400 was a very high price for a pigeon,” said Zhang Wangbin, who runs a club in the central city of Wuhan whose auctions this winter saw several birds sell for 10 times that amount. “It’s the result of economic development,” he added.

Pigeon fancier Chen Shiyi poses in his loft in Yiwu, eastern China
Pigeon prizes: Chen Shiyi with some of his trophies

Pigeons are not the only animals to catch the eye of China’s business elite, with Japanese Koi carp prices also seeing a China effect. Kentaro Sakai, president of the Sakai Fish Farm, Japan’s biggest Koi breeder, said a single fish could sell for up to ¥42m ($380,000).

“Chinese buyers are now most important for the market as they are the biggest buyers and they’re willing to pay high prices,” he added.

Soaring pigeon prices are matched by bigger prizes for pigeon-racing competitions. China’s premier 500km “Iron Eagle” race series held by the Pioneer International club in Beijing boasts a prize pot of Rmb450m. 

The club takes a 30 per cent commission on sales at its annual auction as membership fees. “People have money but have nothing else to do,” said Su Quanlin, club president. “Most [club members] liked pigeons when they were young. Now they have time and money so they’ve picked up the hobby again.”

The tournaments are often venues for gambling, illegal in mainland China, and winnings are often untaxed, according to industry insiders. “Tax and gambling will be a problem sooner or later. It’s a grey zone,” said one Beijing-based pigeon breeder.

Even Mr Chen cannot compete with the top-tier enthusiasts. “I didn’t want to part with the pigeon, but couldn’t afford to bid that much,” he said.

Mr Chen, whose bird scooped the Iron Eagle trophy this year — reaching speeds above 80km per hour — said he earned more than Rmb10m in prize money and proceeds from Pioneer’s auction and insisted the high figures were justified by his birds’ pedigree.

“The pigeons I raise here are descended from national champions in Europe,” he added. “In the end, what is Rmb10m compared with the cost of a house?”

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang in Beijing and Nobuko Juji in Tokyo

Twitter: @hancocktom

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