Dispatch from China: The Castle-Builder of Western China

What do China’s new super-rich do with their money? In the case of Liu Congguang, an unlikely 56-year-old tycoon who has made his fortune building up the Huashengyuan processed-foods empire, his dream is this: to build the largest castle in the world and to build more castles in China than in Europe. Last weekend I ...

Christina Larson
Christina Larson
Christina Larson

What do China's new super-rich do with their money?

In the case of Liu Congguang, an unlikely 56-year-old tycoon who has made his fortune building up the Huashengyuan processed-foods empire, his dream is this: to build the largest castle in the world and to build more castles in China than in Europe.

Last weekend I toured his estates in southwest China. The fanciful architectural plans are all his own, he boasted, as we walked beside one brown castle whose color symbolizes chocolate. One of the castle complexes is also his corporate headquarters. Its hallways are lined with statues of Grecian ladies with harps, elephants, knights, clamshells, Pinocchio, turtle soldiers, and pirates. He looked to me for reaction, but I was speechless. "A lot of rich people in China only want to buy luxury goods, but I want to create," he said. The life-size figurines are custom designed and built less to Western tastes than to Chinese ideas of European mythology crossed with Disneyland; I was perplexed by a statue of a gingerly urinating Cupid.

What do China’s new super-rich do with their money?

In the case of Liu Congguang, an unlikely 56-year-old tycoon who has made his fortune building up the Huashengyuan processed-foods empire, his dream is this: to build the largest castle in the world and to build more castles in China than in Europe.

Last weekend I toured his estates in southwest China. The fanciful architectural plans are all his own, he boasted, as we walked beside one brown castle whose color symbolizes chocolate. One of the castle complexes is also his corporate headquarters. Its hallways are lined with statues of Grecian ladies with harps, elephants, knights, clamshells, Pinocchio, turtle soldiers, and pirates. He looked to me for reaction, but I was speechless. "A lot of rich people in China only want to buy luxury goods, but I want to create," he said. The life-size figurines are custom designed and built less to Western tastes than to Chinese ideas of European mythology crossed with Disneyland; I was perplexed by a statue of a gingerly urinating Cupid.

Yet his Huashengyuan Food Company, founded in 1983, is today one of the largest and most successful producers of premium Twinkie-like products in southwest China, capitalizing on the growing Chinese appetite for luxurious and elaborately packaged baked goods. (A heavy pastry with pressed rose petals as filling is one specialty, fit for wedding or banquets.)

The money he’s making today, at least, is no fantasy. And China’s Euro-fetish, as shorthand for aspiration and sophistication, is here to stay.

During his childhood, Liu, the descendent of KMT officers who had fought against the victorious Communist forces in China’s Civil War, faced persecution. One of the castles is built on the site of a particularly bloody battleground between KMT and Communist forces.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina
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