Yu Yuguang’s heart beats faster every time he stands on his roof, eyes trained to the sky waiting for one of his pigeons to pass through the trap door of its home loft. “Those are the most intense and enjoyable moments of a pigeon race,” says Yu, 57, adding that the sport is like playing the lottery.
He has been lucky. “Little Ancestor”, his 7-month-old pigeon, came first in a recent Chinese Racing Pigeon Association race, beating more than 4,800 competitors and completing a journey of just over 1,000 km from Langfang, near the Chinese capital Beijing, to Shanghai in a record time of 16 hours, 24 minutes and 54 seconds.
The 5,000 yuan ($760) prize money, however, pales in comparison to the 200,000 yuan ($30,600) Yu spends on his 500 pigeons each year. In China, where pigeon racing has a long history, economic development has allowed the sport to spread beyond the ultra-wealthy. Membership in the Chinese Pigeon Association has jumped from tens of thousands in the 1980s to about 400,000, according to its vice president, Huang Jian.
By comparison, Belgium, the traditional heartland of the sport, has about 20,000 pigeon fanciers. That said, most of the huge sums that go into the sport are from deep-pocketed top-tier enthusiasts, eager to get their hands on coveted bloodlines. In November this year, a Chinese collector made headlines when he paid 1.6 million euros ($1.9 million) for a racing pigeon at an auction in Belgium - the latest in a string of eye-catching bids by Chinese fanciers that have driven up prices.
Some Chinese breeders are also willing to bid heavily on their own birds at auctions to increase their market value. A Hangzhou-based breeder, who gave his name as Ying, travelled to Beijing last month for an auction, buying back six of his own pigeons which had placed well in races. Ying, who bought them at prices ranging from 15,000 to 50,000 yuan, didn’t think twice about the cash he spent. “I’m so in love with pigeons. I love them so much. In my heart, pigeons come first and my wife and children second,” he said.