It’s so coo!

It’s a coo! The Chi­nese take over a famed Bel­gian bird tra­di­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By MARTIN BANKS For China Daily

Chi­nese rac­ing pi­geon fanciers have be­come big buy­ers at a Bel­gian pi­geon traders’ as­so­ci­a­tion.

A Bel­gian bird called Bolt was re­cently sold for a world record price of 310,000 eu­ros ($ 425,000), the price of a de­sir­able res­i­dence in Brus­sels. Named af­ter Ja­maica’s Olympic goldmedal sprinter Usain Bolt, the rac­ing pi­geon was bought by a Chi­nese busi­ness­man at an auc­tion held by the Bel­gian pi­geon traders’ as­so­ci­a­tion, Pi­geon Par­adise.

The sale re­flects the sport’s past and its fu­ture. For if Bel­gium is re­garded as the age- old breed­ing home of rac­ing pi­geons, then China is the new center of global de­mand. It is not only fine wines and lux­ury cars that the new class of wealthy Chi­nese are spend­ing their money on.

But, as a source at the as­so­ci­a­tion points out, with pi­geons there is one huge ad­van­tage: “One bot­tle of wine re­mains one bot­tle, but a nice pi­geon will have chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.”

What started as a work­ing­class pas­time across Bel­gium and western Europe a cen­tury ago has now be­come big busi­ness. Ev­i­dence of this came most re­cently when Chi­nese cus­toms of­fi­cials im­pounded 1,200 rac­ing pi­geons, in­clud­ing the re­cently re­tired Bolt, bought by Chi­nese fanciers at the auc­tion the as­so­ci­a­tion or­ga­nized.

Each pi­geon was de­clared at only 99 eu­ros. Chi­nese im­port du­ties are levied at 10 per­cent of the value of goods, with fur­ther val­ued- added tax of 13 per­cent. That means China was due 75,000 eu­ros for the breed­ing Bolt alone.

Bolt was even­tu­ally re­leased but 800 of the birds have been de­tained by Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties.

The im­port du­ties row high­lights China’s rapidly grow­ing fas­ci­na­tion with rac­ing pi­geons, in par­tic­u­lar, those bred in Bel­gium. A cou­ple of years ago, Chi­nese buy­ers ac­quired a 218-bird colony in Bel­gium for a world record 1.3 mil­lion eu­ros. Ear­lier this year a Chi­nese in­dus­tri­al­ist paid 250,000 eu­ros for a rac­ing pi­geon called Spe­cial Blue.

In the sport, spe­cially bred and trained pi­geons are re­leased from a spe­cific lo­ca­tion and race back to their home loft. Be­cause it would be too ex­pen­sive to lose them, the top birds bought in Bel­gium are usu­ally not raced in China, but their off­spring are.

“Bel­gian rac­ing pi­geons have a rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing the best in the world,” says Martin Martens, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s ed­i­to­rial and han­dling ex­pert. “Bel­gian pi­geon fanciers are spe­cial­ized in sev­eral dis­ci­plines — speed, short mid­dle-dis­tance, great mid­dle-dis­tance, long-dis­tance and great long-dis­tance. You don’t see this in other Euro­pean coun­tries.

“In the Nether­lands, for in­stance, they build up the dis­tance week by week, then come back to a shorter dis­tance. One week later they again go for a longer dis­tance. Most of them are not spe­cial­ized in one kind of dis­tance. In Bel­gium ev­ery fancier can race his fa­vorite dis­tance ev­ery week.

“That’s why you can find real spe­cial­ists or pi­geons that are spe­cial­ized for a cer­tain dis­tance or race.”

This, he says, makes com­pe­ti­tion stan­dards higher in Bel­gium.

“We also have our na­tional races from the great mid­dledis­tance to Barcelona. There are 30 na­tional and six in­ter­na­tional races where ev­ery fancier can com­pete.”

Th­ese races are very pop­u­lar and get pub­lic­ity world­wide. There are weekly re­ports and videos about the win­ners.

“Chi­nese fanciers are the big­gest buy­ers of our na­tional win­ners,” Martens says. “They fol­low the na­tional races closely and our ace birds are very fa­mous in China. Ev­ery year, most of th­ese trans­fer to China.

“So you could say that our pi­geons have be­come as an im­por­tant ex­port prod­uct as Bel­gian beer, choco­late or chips.”

The riches and glamor now on of­fer con­trast with the sport’s rel­a­tively hum­ble be­gin­nings.

Pi­geon breed­ing and rac­ing, which first took root in China dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), has be­come a source of in­come and a sta­tus sym­bol for the coun­try’s new rich, as well as a pop­u­lar hobby. But its boom in China con­trasts sharply with its rel­a­tive de­cline in Bel­gium.

Sun Yang, deputy di­rec­tor of the Bei­jing Chang­ping dis­trict rac­ing pi­geon as­so­ci­a­tion, says China is now home to at least 300,000 pi­geon fanciers. One re­cent race in Bei­jing of­fered 23 mil­lion yuan ($ 3.8 mil­lion) in prize money.

Mem­ber­ship of pi­geon fed­er­a­tions in China has soared over the past 12 to 15 years and, for top pi­geons, prices have in­creased two to three­fold in 10 years, Martens says.

Its pop­u­lar­ity in China is at­trib­uted in part to Gor­don Chiu, one of the coun­try’s most ta­lented pi­geon fanciers. As a boy, Chiu spent count­less hours with the pi­geons his un­cle kept on the bal­cony of his Shang­hai apart­ment.

Chiu has pur­sued his hobby since the 1970s with “un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm”. In 1979, he took part in the first su­per long-dis­tance race, in which 581 pi­geons set off from three dif­fer­ent prov­inces. Only 75 com­pleted the epic 2,430- kilo­me­ter race but Chiu’s pi­geon was one of them.

Chiu is among the Chi­nese busi­ness­men who have bought pi­geons from Pi­geon Par­adise’s auc­tion house. It is a sign of the im­por­tance of the Chi­nese mar­ket that its web­site has been trans­lated into Man­darin.

How­ever, the down­side to the “Chi­nese invasion” is that pi­geon fanciers in Bel­gium are un­able to com­pete with the high prices be­ing paid.

Speak­ing re­cently at the sec­ond world pi­geon fair in Kor­trijk, Bel­gium, French­man Gilles Van­neuville com­plained: “It’s daf. It’s killing the sport. How do you ex­pect a young per­son to start out?”

His con­cerns are shared by a com­pa­triot, Mar­cel Can­denir, from Lille, who says: “I find it too ex­pen­sive. To pay 200,000 eu­ros for a pi­geon is not a nor­mal price.”

There have also been prob­lems of theft from Bel­gian breed­ers, and rack­e­teer­ing.

Some, like Marc De Cock, who owns 600 pi­geons in Temse, north­ern Bel­gium, have gone to ex­treme lengths to pro­tect their prized pos­ses­sions.

He has in­vested heav­ily in se­cu­rity for his birds, some of which are worth 100,000 eu­ros. Watched by 15 video cam­eras, they have their own shower and so­lar­ium and are treated like top sports cham­pi­ons.

De Cock, who is look­ing to sell many of his birds to Asian cus­tomer, says: “The Chi­nese at­tach a lot of im­por­tance to pres­tige. Even if they don’t want to breed them, or race them, they want to buy a lux­ury pi­geon much like an art col­lec­tor would like to buy a Rubens or a Rem­brandt.”

Bel­gium takes the sport, and birds in gen­eral, se­ri­ously. At Lede, in East Flan­ders, there is a mu­seum ded­i­cated to the hobby. There is even a finch- singing com­pe­ti­tion, re­cently rec­og­nized in the reg­is­ter of Flem­ish cul­tural her­itage.

But the de­cline of pi­geon rac­ing in the coun­try is re­flected in fig­ures. In the 1950s, the coun­try had more than 250,000 of­fi­cial mem­bers in the Royal Pi­geon Fed­er­a­tion. Now there are only 30,000.

The cur­rent Chi­nese duty case has cer­tainly ruf­fled feath­ers, but the as­so­ci­a­tion’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Niko­laas Gy­sel­brecht, who re­cently flew to Bei­jing to help ne­go­ti­ate the re­lease of Bolt and some of the pi­geons held by Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, re­mains op­ti­mistic about the sport’s fu­ture.

He hopes that in­ci­dent will be an iso­lated one in what is oth­er­wise seen as re­newed in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in the sport.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

More than 20,000 pi­geons are re­leased at the start of a race in Flan­ders, Bel­gium. Chi­nese rac­ing pi­geon fanciers have be­come big buy­ers of Pi­geon Par­adise, a Bel­gian pi­geon traders’ as­so­ci­a­tion.

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