For most of last year, South America’s second-largest economy and Asia’s largest economy have not been playing nicely. Argentina was raising restrictions on a range of Chinese manufactures. China, in retaliation, slammed the door on Argentinian soyoil, of which the South American country is the world’s largest exporter and, until the spat, China’s largest supplier. Argentina used accounted for 77% of the Chinese soyoil market in 2009. Last year, its share plummeted to 12%.
Lately, the situation has begun to improve, with a deal to resume soyoil shipments announced last week. The arguably more surprising development, however, has to do with another Argentine product.
In Beijing for a high-level trade mission this week, the secretary of Argentina’s Footwear Industry Chamber Horacio Moschetto told Dow Jones Newswires that Argentine shoe makers had managed to tie up orders from China. And while he wouldn’t say precisely how many shoes were involved, he did let on that a big part of the deal involved polo boots.
Arguably better known for Eva Peron and the tango, Argentina has been a bastion of polosince the sport was popularized there by British settlers in the 19th century. China’s history with the sport goes back even farther: By some accounts, polo was the bees’ knees as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), except only imperial types played it.
Fast forward a millennium or so: The imperials are gone but polo is making a comeback in China, thanks to the country’s new luxury-loving aristocracy.
Last winter, a six-day snow polo tournament was held just outside Beijing, hosted by the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, which was started by a Hong Kong-listed property developer. There’s even a governing body of sorts, called China Polo Clubs, set up to “develop and manage polo clubs in China.”
And while the ranks of China’s new rich are dominated by men, Mr. Moschetto revealed an interesting detail: A lot of the polo boots to be shipped to China from Argentina are for women.
Possibly because the sport has only recently been revived in China, there are no statistics that break down the country’s polo players by gender. But the idea that Chinese women might jump on a horse and join in the fun is not without historical precedent. Among the Tang Dynasty terracotta statues archaeologists have uncovered, several appear to depict female polo players, suggesting that the 21st century isn’t the first time the sport found gender equality.
The China deal marks another step in the recovery of Argentina’s shoemakers, who have been battered by a series of ruinous economic crises and only begun to rebuild what was once a venerated national industry. Still, they face a tough challenge in trying to compete in a market well know for its ability to produce knock-off footwear.
Mr. Moschetto, for his part, seemed confident his cobblers would be able to compete. “China is a demanding market, but the quality of Argentina’s leather is very high,” he said.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not?), China Polo Clubs is largely staffed by Argentinians and has an office in Argentina too, according to its website. There’s at least one customer the South American boot-makers can count on.
– Chuin-Wei Yap