Salt entrepreneur becomes overnight billionaire art collector

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By RONG REN
Economics Correspondent

Chinese shoppers patiently queue for salt outside one of Lu's stores this weekend

SHANGHAI (China Daily Show) – “When I said I was quitting university to start my own salt-and-vinegar concern, my parents thought I was mad. They tried to disown me,” smiles Lu Yun, 27. “Now I’m the most filial son in the village.”

Lu was speaking at Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s spring auction, where he paid 80 million yuan for an ornate white-jade  seal that may have been used once by Emperor Yongzheng.

Until just last week, however, Lu subsisted on a diet of instant noodles and thought that the Qing Dynasty was a band.

That was before Japan’s East Coast was devastated by a tsunami and earthquake, causing near-meltdowns at several nuclear reactors and sending Chinese consumers in their droves to supermarkets in search of salt, consumption of which is widely – but erroneously – considered to protect the human body from absorbing radiation.

Iodized salt from Macau and Hong Kong to Beijing, Shanghai and as far west as Xinjiang has since sold out, with prices rising by over 1,000 percent – despite government warnings that consumption increases blood pressure and has no discernible scientific affect on radiation poisoning.

China’s latest billionaire has acquired his new-found wealth practically overnight; in 2003, Lu’s salt-and-vinegar business sold out of every range of vinegar stocked, after locals became convinced the condiment provided protection from the SARS virus.

Lu invested all the family money in huge quantities of salt and vinegar, but by then, the crisis had passed and the vinegar craze was over.

“I was on a stopover in London and very hungry,” Lu recalled the origins of his unexpected success story. “The only thing I could buy at that hour were a traditional English delicacy: salt-and-vinegar crisps.’”

Lu was quickly hooked. He dropped out of college in 2002 and formed a business promoting the dish – but found fellow Chinese didn’t share his passion. Until last week, business for Lu’s ingredients was almost non-existent and Lu faced bankruptcy– but on Tuesday, trade began to pick up sharply.

By the weekend, Lu had sold the company to a Hebei-based conglomerate for a billion-dollar figure, invested in several coal mines, blown a million yuan on a Charlie Sheen-themed KTV-and-mahjong bender and established himself as a serious player in China’s burgeoning art market.

“I will pay any price for my health,” said customer Chen Yueli, 23, who admitted she had previously ignored warnings about tainted Henanese pork, toxic milk powder, recycled hogwash oil and chemically enhanced hotpots but took the iodized salt alert seriously.

Chen paid 2,000 yuan for an iodine-rich salt lick, available for 12 yuan only the day before. She paused to lick off another 50-yuan’s worth of “life-saving” salt, adding, “This shows the Chinese are really starting to understand things better.”

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