Middle-class matrons do not make big money, but to a large extent they control the nation’s spending. Now, they are even influencing global financial markets.
In the mid-1980s, before I enrolled in a US business school, I noticed a print ad in the Chinese press. It was from United Airlines, if I'm not mistaken, and featured a middle-aged Chinese lady in the center of the design. She was not a fashionable woman, mind you, just someone average.
"Gee, this is not the kind of person who can make this kind of purchase," I told myself. At that time, flying to the US was miles too expensive for most Chinese. Even if a family was sending a kid to the States for graduate study, it would probably be the price — and price alone — that was the determining factor.
At Haas School of Business, I used this ad as an example of a US company using American logic to sell to a Chinese clientele. Yes, the image was of a quintessential Chinese woman, but Chinese with money at the time did not want to be identified with a typical Chinese woman of little glamour. It would have been so much more natural and attractive to feature a young American woman, a supermodel type, in the ad, as I suggested in my international marketing class.
It has turned out that UA was 20 years ahead of their time in that advertising detail. The typical Chinese lady — middle-aged and middle-class — has of late been making waves in world financial markets. The group is called Chinese dama and for the lack of an accurate English equivalent even the mainstream Western press has been using the easily pronounceable dama.
Dama literally means "big mama", but one should refrain from adding an African-American accent to it. It is an affectionate term in the vein of "aunty", which can be addressed to any middle-aged woman whether you are related to her or not. The male equivalent is dashu (uncle, not "big daddy"). And it has nothing to do with the person's physique.
Dama does not imply wealth or social status. Even if your neighbor is below the poverty line, you'll still address her as dama as long as she is of a certain age. However, the recent spate of financial news involving a demographic called Chinese dama clearly refers to women who are well off but not those female executives or while-collar women with high earning power. It would be offensive if you called them dama.
Earlier this year, when the price of gold fell on the international market, many Chinese women jumped at the chance for what they deemed a bargain, sweeping jewelry stores across the nation, including Hong Kong, clean of anything containing gold. As a result, the gold price held steady for a while. The press hailed the Chinese dama for defeating Wall Street.
Later, the gold price resumed its downward push. The Chinese press turned around and mocked the dama for their "inadequacy in investment savvy" and "foolishness" in thinking everything cheaper is worth buying.
So, who are the members of the Chinese dama? Simply put, they are the people who hold the purse strings to China's spending power. Contrary to what many Western feminists assume, in most Chinese families, especially the middle class, it is the wife who controls the family finances.
Of course there is no data, but empirical evidence is quite abundant. In many Chinese cities, the husbands turn in all their salary and their wives give them a small allowance, called "cigarette money". In the old times, when women had no access to the family bank account, they might have kept some pin money without their husbands' knowledge. Nowadays I've heard of men doing that. Of course women have kept up tradition, too, because the big money belongs jointly to the couple and is technically open to the husbands' scrutiny. On average, wives have a bigger say since they manage most of the family affairs anyway.
Chinese dama tend to have a herd mentality, but they are not easily swayed by advertisement. They tend to trust their friends and neighbors more than something printed in a glossy magazine. They talk about using various brands of cosmetics, but they often look like victims of fashion. They are down to earth, eager to bargain down a cabbage at the local farmers' market by five cents, yet willing to splurge hundreds of thousands of yuan on an item such as a gold bar.
Suffice to say, they do not read books or publications on investment and have never heard of words like "options" or "futures". But they do have an intuitive understanding of return on investment. They prefer things they can touch and feel, so there is suspicion that they are behind China's sky-high property prices. Certainly, their demands that potential sons-in-law own real estate before tying the knot are exerting unquantifiable pressure on the market.
Since I'm already offering free advice to Fortune 500 companies about the secret of China's demographics, I'll go one step further. Chinese dama are the nicest people one can meet, the most hospitable and trustworthy. They may be housewives or have jobs that leave them with plenty of free time. They chat among themselves about pretty much everything, gaining intimate knowledge of who is making how much and who is sleeping with whom. In previous incarnations from the not-too-distant past, they would volunteer to catch cheating husbands in the community or stop premarital sex from taking place under their watch.
Nowadays, they would still love to see people hitching up and properly marrying. In one community in Zhengzhou, four dama successfully played matchmakers for 1,600 couples over four years, according to one report. And they probably did not get paid. It's all in the gung-ho spirit of showering the young with conjugal bliss.
Chinese dama did not grow up rich. They went through a period when inflation was high and the family earnings were limited. But with their children possibly away at college or out of college and their husbands still toiling away in the office or on the road, they now find themselves flush with cash and faced with a dizzying array of investment or consumption options. What they end up buying for themselves or their families will not necessarily be the same as what their peers in Western countries might take a liking to.
In recent weeks, Chinese dama have been said to be behind the roller-coaster ride of the digital currency known as bitcoin. That is certainly a new development because it defies the conventional wisdom that they prefer their wealth to be tangible.
I've been wondering how Chinese dama would respond to that 1980s UA ad. They might have said, "Yeah, I want to pamper myself with a luxury trip to the US. I deserve it and can afford it now. Besides, this lady looks just like me." If the ad featured a young model as I suggested back in Berkeley, dama might have said, "She looks like a typical trophy wife. My husband could be spending money behind my back on this kind of woman and he may even pay her to fly to the US for a vacation. Well, maybe I should buy more gold and stash it away so I'll have something to fall back on when things turn bad."