ISPO - the world's largest outdoor expo comes to Shanghai.
Why most western brands avoided it and how it tolerates counterfeiters.
Plus a first hand view of the Chinese emerging outdoor industry and consumer.
July 2015 - it's the first time for ISPO to exhibit in the world's largest city. It's debut - a modest struggle to fill 3 halls of SNIECs 15, had its largest booths showcasing gym equipment. The show - dominated by clothes, lots of Lycra, bags, shoes, had an eerie absence of outdoor equipment or anyone that looks like they can use it. The day before the opening I watched someone struggling to assemble an Oru Kayak. It looked like it was his first time. Western brands, if present at all were represented by a Chinese firm whose sales personnel hardly knew how to use the gear. Equipment was represented mostly by indoor tennis games, table tennis, exercise machines and of course kayaks...
We learned that the previous year in Beijing Oru Kayak had a counterfeit scuffle with a Chinese company whilst ISPOs organisers stood by and watched. Although they knew of Oru Kayak's rights, legally their hands were tied. Welcome to China.
Little did we know that an hour later we would face a similar plight. Walking around the show we soon realised that we were the only western brand tents there. This was its debut we thought, perhaps the other brands don't know of it yet. And then we came around a corner to see a copy of one of our own tents. Wow! We could hardly believe it. We already had a few companies trying their hands on copying our gear but this was out there, in full view, in a reputable expo, blatantly in our face, in the same room as the Brand New awards where our tent was spread out.
A year earlier we found that In China a world patent (WO) isn't worth the paper it was printed on. We swiftly acquired a Chinese patent. Then we realised that a Chinese patent isn't worth the paper it was printed on. Then we acquired a patent examination report. Not just one but two. Woohoo! At last we had the upper hand when it came to legal matters.
So we found the organisers, they called their lawyer to verify our patent and a decision was made to talk to the booth owners. After a short chat the booth owners agreed to take down the counterfeit tent. Voila. Job done. Everyone shake hands and say good bye.
Then I started wondering whether or not the counterfeiting company got away with it lightly. No police was called, the booth owners were allowed to continue to operate, even the tent wasn't seized. The ISPO organisers decided to tolerate a counterfeiting company exhibiting on their premises and reacted in the least confrontational way. They said that they need a court injunction to enforce anything.
However, they could expel the counterfeiting company from their premises. They had the power to do so but they did not.
So why is China not fit for outdoor pursuits?
Well first of all is the Chinese culture. In the west we call it "the great outdoors" or "Mother Nature", in China, they call it... "Bad environment". I know, this sounds like a joke or something made up for fun but after more than year of living in China and exploring the outdoors this was the one and only description that I've heard.
It happened on a trip into one of the most beautiful parts of China - YanShuo. If you've seen a picture of the river LiJiang you'd know what I'm talking about. Easily one of the most beautiful sceneries in the world. My Chinese friend and I were climbing up a hill to take a spectacular photo of the river weaving through the karst hills at sunset. It was hairy jungle all the way up but I wasn't about to give up. It turned out he hadn't heard of Rambo so I proceeded to teach him about one of my childhood heroes and how one well trained man that knows about the jungle can defeat a whole army etc...
On the way back when I heard him describing the jungle as "Bad Environment" I understood why they didn't screen Rambo in China. People here are simply not ready to see things the way we see them. Nature is seen as unpleasant and inhospitable.
It took me a while to get to grips with it but now I see it - the land in China is used in one of two ways - the flat ground is farmed and this mostly consists of irrigation canals and rice paddies - you wouldn't want to walk through that "nature", the hills here in the east and south on the other hand are covered in hairy short trees, bush and bamboo and are mostly steep and muddy so they too don't inspire nature walks easily. To add to that most of China got urbanised in the last 10 or 20 years and what to us is "nature" to them is "rural countryside" that is reminiscent to hunger and poverty. Why would anyone want to go there?
In Europe and the USA there are thousands of camping sites. In China there are about 30. I am yet to see a camper van (RV). Someone told me they are illegal.
The largest outdoor store is Decathlon and if your looking for a diving torch, a pair of skis, or even a simple climbing harness you're in bad luck. If you're looking for something more technical like a diving tank... I have a feeling that the nearest diving tank to me is in Korea. (I've looked for one)
In China the sea is seen as dangerous and so you won't see many swimmers out there. We got ushered out by the life guard as soon as we reached knee depth. At the beach you would not see sunbathers, dark skin is not deemed beautiful here. People just roll up their trousers, walk around and take a selfie. That's about it. No surfing, no sailing, no snorkelling, no water sports.
Sport isn't practised much and perhaps this is why their soccer team sucks so much.
The more technical things become - the less practiced they are. Tents are used but only budget ones and only for a bit of privacy at the picnic site. I've seen kayaking and rock climbing but only at dedicated sites and you're not allowed to bring your own kit or boat - you have to rent one (and a guide). Perhaps cycling is the most popular outdoor activity - this is the only activity I see on mountain sides as I go past. Perhaps this explains the abundance of Lycra vests at the ISPO.
Even outdoor clothing isn't very popular. I've seen too many heels, leather jackets and pinstripe suits up a mountain side. Yes, The North Face has a store in Shanghai but I have a feeling they will start selling out in the years to come. Not just now. For now, they sell because of the brand. The newly rich Chinese are in awe of western brands and they spend extraordinary amounts on branded goods. The logo, the name, the badge is a symbol of success, class, prosperity and desirability.
This is the essence.