The woman smoking her way into Chinese society
Smoking cigars, once a pastime reserved for the elite and seen as a symbol of bourgeois decadence in China, is now enjoyed by thousands with numbers growing daily nationwide.
According to recent industry reports more than RMB 2.2 billion is spent on cigars in China a year, and the numbers are going up.
In major Chinese cities -- with Shanghai leading the way -- a Chinese cigar culture is clearly taking hold.
But what's interesting is that women are starting to join the ranks of newly curious, newly moneyed and status-hungry men, gaining entry into the world of Chinese cigar aficionados.
Cigar’s softer side
Enter the grand dame of cigars herself, Lily Wang.
Although she’s quick to laugh off her unofficial title of "Shanghai’s cigar queen," no truer representation of China’s most exclusive group could be found.
A former player in the investment banking industry, Wang made a leap of faith in 2005 to pursue her passion for cigars starting with the launch of her publication “Cigar Ambassador.”
This now popular bimonthly magazine serves China’s cigar enthusiasts both nationwide and abroad. It has branched into a successful chain of Siglo cigar shops and clubs with three locations in Shanghai and two in Beijing.
Conducting most of the research and reviews herself, Wang smokes an average of two to three cigars a day (or more if duty calls for it) with a double daily ritual smoke at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
“We are very careful with our facts and presentation to the smokers getting the ‘right’ message out about Chinese cigar culture. I make it my job to have first-hand, from the-field-to-factory experience of the cigars on the shelves of my humidors,” says Wang.
No stranger to world travel, including several years spent in South America and the Caribbean, Wang’s continual trips abroad keep her on top of the latest brands and tobacco techniques.
A long love affair
As Wang blogs, ladies and the leaf have actually never been too far apart.
“Cigars [may be] regarded as [a] man’s toy, but the industry today is full of women … ranging from the most exclusive cigar rollers to tasters, tobacco growers and processors, professional sellers and bar girls.”
Over the past six years I’ve noticed, particularly in Shanghai, a large number of women smoking to deal with increasing pressures of city life with some, not all, making the change to cigars.— Daisy Dong
As for its exclusive users, with China’s economy at full blast including home to half the world's 14 self-made female billionaires, it should be no surprise this elite club has begun to show a more feminine side.
Cigar Ambassador’s female membership alone, before at just under five percent, has grown to eight percent in 2010 and continues to move upward.
“This eight percent represents true aficionadas, who not only love a good smoke, but are well-informed and genuinely keen to be part of cigar culture," says Wang.
“A true cigar lover is just that -- man or woman, it shouldn't matter,” Wang notes. “A Chinese man’s role with cigars has always been clear, but a cigar lady's role is less defined so they don’t feel the pressure -- they have no one to impress, but perhaps themselves.”
Who holds the purse strings
So who is pulling the purse strings? It should be no surprise in Shanghai that women are doing much of the buying. Figures show a large number of women now entering Shanghai tobacco shops, even if they're not necessarily the ones lighting up.
Daisy Dong, cigar dame at Westin Bund Center, Shanghai’s first official cigar shop, with over 10 years working the cigar retail scene shares her findings: “Many women come in to buy, often for the boyfriend or that boss or client. They are very involved but might not buy for themselves.”
Wang, noting Siglo Shanghai sales, finds 90 percent of customers -- male and female -- are true cigar aficionados, shopping for themselves. The remainder come in for gifts or out of curiosity.
“Cigars are not for everyone,” notes Wang. “Many locals come into the store, try a smoke and find it’s simply not for them, whereas others are hooked at once. [I find] those who are only in it for the money or status don’t often stay long.”
The big smoke-over
Although female numbers pale in comparison to China’s overall staggering tobacco consumption, female smokers are indeed on the rise.
Dong has definitely noticed the change.
“Over the past six years I’ve noticed, particularly in Shanghai, a large number of women smoking to deal with increasing pressures of city life with some, not all, making the change to cigars.”
Statistically, women have a higher rate of quitting smoking, or at least a motivation to do so and "Cigar Ambassador" research has found that 65 percent of former cigarette smokers have made the switch to cigars as a means to reduce the amount they smoke.
“We never pressure people to smoke, but for those unable to quit entirely, we want to offer them a relaxing and positive alternative,” says Wang.
Ladies choice? Dong and Wang agree that many female smokers often make the transition to cigars via the more seemingly feminine choice of cigarillos.
“The main difference, if any, is the size; many women prefer smaller, more fashionable cigarillos; basically a miniature version [of a cigar], with less strong taste,” says Wang.
Dong agrees: “The true female smokers in Shanghai never strive to be masculine. They’re confident and sure of who they are. Perhaps they prefer the smaller more lady-like cigarillos for just that reason, they are ladies after all.”