Rudy Rong took a seat at a table in the Commerce Casino’s poker hall, his legs jigging with nervous energy.
The son of Chinese video game billionaires hadn’t come here to gamble. Rong was launching a virtual reality start-up, and he had arrived hours earlier to videotape a musical performance in the casino’s ballroom for an investor demo.
But as Ping An, a pop star and former contestant in the singing show Voice of China, took the mic, Rong grew anxious, left the camera running onstage and retreated downstairs to the poker tables.
As he tossed a US$100 bill on the green felt, his phone’s glow illuminated bags under his eyes. His start-up’s app would be launching in a month, and he had been pushing himself hard, packing his schedule with coding sessions, media appearances and investor meetings.
As one of China’s fuerdai – the scions of the country’s new wealthy class famous throughout the world for flashy spending and fast cars – Rong wanted to prove he can do more than inherit money.
A stack of chips appeared in front of him. The game was No Limit Texas Hold ’Em, and when it came time for Rong to make his last bet before the dealer showed the final card, he took another look at his hand.
The odds of Rong getting another spade, completing a flush and winning the hand, were low. But so were the odds of a 22-year-old University of Southern California student launching a successful startup. To win at anything, Rong believes, you must gamble. He pushed “all in”. The dealer flipped a queen of clubs. Another US$100 gone. Rong frowned and reached for his wallet.
In recent years, Porsches, Lamborghinis and Ferraris have become common sights outside certain hot pot restaurants in California’s San Gabriel Valley.
Behind the wheels of these cars are fuerdai like Rudy, a generation born in the aftermath of China’s economic miracle, with every imaginable resource at their disposal.
For many in China, the fuerdai symbolise the values lost in the modernising country’s mad dash for economic growth: diligence, humility and restraint. Their exploits make headlines across the world and read like a cautionary tale of new wealth – The Great Gatsby but with China-size fortunes.
The son of one of China’s richest men buys two Apple Watches, fastens them around his dog’s forepaws and posts it on social media to wild public outcry. A local official’s son tries to use his father’s name as a get-out-of-jail-free card after killing two students in a car crash. Rumours of wild orgies in coastal cities periodically surface through Weibo, China’s Twitter.
And in Los Angeles, where many rich Chinese families send their kids to school, an 18-year-old University of California, Irvine student from China was arrested in Malibu after leading police on a 122mph chase across the city in a BMW 750i, unaware he was being pursued.
The fuerdais’ antics have inspired such national anxiety that last year the Chinese government ordered 70 of these second-generation nouveau riche to attend an education camp on Chinese values.
Rong, a second-year student at USC, rents an office in a downtown skyscraper, spends weekends in his family’s 5,900-square-foot house in Newport Beach and, depending on his mood, drives a Bentley Continental GT, a Rolls-Royce Phantom, a Porsche Turbo Cayenne, a Cadillac, a Mercedes or a Range Rover – a fleet he keeps parked around town, some in spaces that go for up to US$2,400 a year at the downtown Los Angeles high-rise where he has his apartment. He freely identifies as fuerdai, but with one caveat.
“It just defines you as someone’s son. We want to be known for ourselves,” Rong said.
Five thousand dollars in cash fluttered over the dance floor at Lure, a Hollywood nightclub, like overpriced confetti. Rong raised his phone and hit “record”. His video of that night in 2014 shows dancers ignoring the thumping bass beat, crawling after bills and leaping to snatch money from the air.
Beyond the dance floor, he said, bikini-clad models rolled cigars and lay on tables inviting patrons to suck body shots of expensive alcohol from their navels. Outside, late arrivals pulled up in gleaming sports cars and strutted along a red carpet.
When police responded to reports of underage drinking, Rong and his friends rented two buses and moved the festivities down the street to Cosmo, where, he said, actors James Franco and Seth Rogen made an appearance.
The party’s chaotic extravagance was the product of Prime Union, a leisure club for young, wealthy Chinese nationals in the US that Rong and his friends created as college freshmen.
In exchange for a membership fee that eventually swelled to US$20,000 a year, Prime Union organised private jets to Las Vegas, threw parties where members could eat sushi off the nude bodies of models and rented out mansions in the Hollywood Hills to show off their flashy cars and throw more parties.
Rong said he started the club because he wanted to “change the image of Chinese people” in America – an image, he believed, that consisted of little more than infrequent, unflattering roles in film and television, like Ken Jeong’s turn as Chow in The Hangover movies.
Prime Union members, Rong said, didn’t need to wait for acceptance and respect – they could buy it, and they could buy the clubs that wouldn’t admit them, and throw parties where Chinese guys get all the girls. Their slogan reflected an almost nationalist ethos: “You were born differently. It’s in your blood.”
But that part of his life, Rong insisted, is in the past. He quit the club a year ago. It wasn’t making very much money, and after police shut down the October event, the club lost its credibility with members.
The parties also left Rong jaded. He began to see that many of his friends – the sons and daughters of politicians and industry titans – were unhappy.
“I’ve seen so many second-generation rich who are craving to fill emptiness inside of them and their hearts,” Rong said. “Every day is about the next party and the next girl. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
Last November, he withdrew US$100,000 from an account his parents help fund and launched Magic Cube. He resolved to change his image.
Soon after coming to the US as a high school student, Rong says, he lost faith in the American dream and began to subscribe to the notion of the Chinese dream.
If the American dream is the promise of prosperity in exchange for hard work, the Chinese dream, in Rong’s view, is the chance of immortality – the belief that anyone can become the richest man in the world, so long as he places the right bets.
Rong’s bet is Magic Cube. His idea is to merge aspects of virtual reality, reality TV, live streaming video, online gaming, the social-influencer economy and big data for a product that Rong hopes is tailor-made for the Chinese economy: everchanging, astronomically ambitious, and with a pay-off of billions.
Users will participate in live-streamed games and television shows cast with social media stars and bid money in real time to influence the cast’s actions. Data scientists will analyse the movements of users wearing 3D goggles to optimise the VR content. Users can buy watches, clothes and jewellery to own in the game, and eventually, virtual reality filmmakers will be able to create their own games and television shows for the platform.
Rong has spent the last few weeks making a demo for investors and trying to model the frugality that is required of a start-up founder. The money once spent on fancy restaurants and flashy clothes he now invests in the company. The last time he went to a club was to gather footage for an investor demo. He’s thinking about selling his Bentley.
In the final days before his start-up’s scheduled launch, Rong flew back to China for his grandfather’s funeral and was forced to push back his start-up’s launch date. But to his family’s dismay, he immediately caught a flight back Los Angeles, skipping some of the traditional mourning rituals so he can take a meeting with a Lionsgate producer about creating a virtual reality promo for the film Nerve, a video-game thriller starring Dave Franco. He can’t miss the opportunity.
He is close with his mother, and he spends much of the flight thinking about how he disappointed her. Before he left, she told him that he was disrespecting his family and his elders – one of the common criticisms of China’s elite youth.
But he reminded himself that his mother, a video game entrepreneur herself, had always taught him that he needed to make something of himself and create his own fortune. And making money, Rong decided, required sacrifice. He could only hope his mother would understand someday.