Claw Back


The World of Chinese - - Tea Leaves - – HATTY LIU

“If I have my eye on a toy, then I must grab it; even if I know I can just buy it for a cou­ple of hun­dred, I still have to grab it,” shop­per Zhuang Wei tells Xin­cai­jing blog, af­ter putting 500 RMB on a spe­cial cash card to use at a claw-ma­chine shop in a Hangzhou mall.

Stocked with 30 beep­ing ma­chines of­fer­ing stuffed toys, phone cases, pur­port­edly real jewelry, and Chanel makeup up for (lit­eral) grabs, the shop is one of thou­sands that have opened in China dur­ing the past year. Even third and fourthtier cities are suc­cumb­ing to so-called “crane game fever,” as the best spots in coastal city malls and com­mer­cial dis­tricts get filled up.

“Cus­tomers usu­ally man­age to get this one af­ter spend­ing 300 RMB,” says one store man­ager, re­fer­ring to Zhuang’s per­sonal white whale: a two-foot plush toy croc­o­dile that re­tails for just 100 RMB on­line. Busi­ness is boom­ing; Xin­cai­jing es­ti­mates that any store can get a re­turn on its in­vest­ment in five months or less.

Claw ma­chines, also called skill cranes or UFO catch­ers, had their hey­day in US and Japan malls and ar­cades dur­ing the 1980s and 90s. In China, though, ar­cade games were viewed with sus­pi­cion, seen as ei­ther gam­bling de­vices or un­whole­some dis­trac­tions for stu­dents. In 2000, the govern­ment banned the sale and op­er­a­tion of all such game ma­chines, cit­ing the “ad­dic­tive play­ing among youths.”

In 2013, the ban was lifted, with the need to in­crease

the com­pet­i­tive­ness of China’s do­mes­tic game de­sign in­dus­try cited as one jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. While the coun­try still hasn’t pro­duced the next Nin­tendo, fac­tory own­ers in Panyu district, Guang­dong—the world’s claw-ma­chine man­u­fac­tur­ing hub—have re­ported or­der in­creases of 50 per­cent each year since 2013, with a to­tal es­ti­mate of over 200 mil­lion ma­chines in China.

The craze has even gone on­line: There are at least 30 games in Chi­nese app stores where users can re­mote-con­trol a real-life ma­chine, watch­ing the ac­tion via live stream, and get their win­nings de­liv­ered by courier. Such apps, as one maker boasts to Xin­cai­jing, “at­tracts in­vestors…and prod­uct devel­op­ment teams of big cor­po­ra­tions as soon as they’re put on­line.” The par­ent com­pany of one, Grab Dolls Ev­ery Day (天天抓娃娃), is backed by a 20 mil­lion USD in­vest­ment from Ten­cent.

How­ever, as with bike-shar­ing, claw ma­chines’ ubiq­uity is di­min­ish­ing their prof­itabil­ity—and the specter of the old ban is still present; last year saw a crackdown on claw “gam­bling” ma­chines in Xi’an which al­lowed play­ers to ex­change the toys for cash. Those in the in­dus­try, though, are con­fi­dent that the off­line toy-grab fever, at least, is no mere bub­ble.

“As cities seek to in­te­grate leisure with com­merce, it’s nat­u­ral for claw ma­chines to en­ter cin­e­mas, su­per­mar­kets, and book­stores…to at­tract young peo­ple,” In­ re­ported in 2017. “It’s al­ready con­sid­ered a stan­dard ac­ces­sory.”

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