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The End of China’s Giant Yellow Rubber Duck Era?

Taiwan’s giant yellow duck’s rear end blew out, Beijing’s was deflated and shipped on to its next destination, and Hong Kong’s had an inglorious death before being resuscitated and sent to Pittsburgh. Is this the end of the giant yellow duck era in China?

A 6.3 magnitude earthquake leveled Taiwan’s 59-foot yellow rubber duck, and when rescuers attempted to blow it up again its rear end exploded, rendering it a 600 pound puddle of PVC — in other words: dead. Meanwhile, Beijing put their giant inflated duck to rest, the formal deflation occurring before a crowd of 70,000 who came and bid it farewell before it goes to the next stop on its tour. And in May, Hong Kong’s four story high inflated duck mysteriously went flat, falsely rumored to have been murdered by repeatedly being struck by lit cigarette butts flicked by mainland Chinese saboteurs.

With hope, this giant yellow duck fad in China is over.

What began as a way of “Spreading joy around the world” by the Dutch artist, Florentijn Hofman, in 2007 was transformed into an impetus for municipal rivalry, mass commercialization, and, on occasion, rampant profiteering in China.

I must admit that what Hong Kong did with their duck is pretty cool

I must admit that what Hong Kong did with their duck is pretty cool

As soon as Hong Kong got one of Hofman’s giant rubber duckies in early May, Mainland China was thrown into the quagmire of duck envy. Suddenly, every city in China wanted one, and if they couldn’t win a petition to become a stop on one of the “official” giant duck tours, they just made their own. Versions of knock-off giant yellow ducks soon popped up in Xian, Hangzhou, Foshan, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Tianjin, while poor Dongguan, clearly missing something, tossed an oversize, anthropomorphic, blow up duckling wearing overalls with a bow on its head into a river. Though the lamest attempt must have come from Shanghai, who outfitted one of their passenger ferries as a roast duck dinner complete with drumsticks.

The fad continued spreading down through all tiers of city in all parts of China. I even saw a giant yellow rubber duck floating in a pond in Songtao, a city in a Miao Autonomous prefecture in the remote far northeast of Guizhou province, as well as one floating on the Tuo River in Fenghuang, an ancient town in the far west of Hunan province. Many of these knock-off inflated ducks drew massive crowds, and throughout the summer they became staples in just about every Chinese city.

Duck floating on the Tuo River with traditional boats

Duck floating on the Tuo River with traditional boats

The bigger the better was the mantra here, and cities competed against cities across China to see who could procure the biggest and best giant yellow ducky. This inter-city rivalry happens whenever China is whipped up in the whirlwind of some new mania — whether it be crisis or fad — and was not entirely unlike how municipalities competed to see who could kill the most birds during the bird flu outbreak earlier this year.

Then Beijing stepped into the picture and proclaimed that they were going to get the most giant off all the giant yellow ducks in Mainland China, and, more than that, theirs was going to be “authentic.” Apparently being jealous of Hong Kong’s official Florentijn Hofman duck, Beijing had the Dutch artist make them one too (“Just make sure it’s bigger than Hong Kong’s”). It was presented to the city as a gift in September, as Beijing got their inflatable yellow leverage.

The Beijing duck was 14×15×18 meters, 1.5 meters taller than the one in Hong Kong.

Though Hong Kong relented to the fact that Beijing’s duck was taller, they claimed that it looked “chicken-like,” its beak was sewn on funny, and it was in all regards aesthetically inferior to theirs. Of course.

But the Beijing duck was still nowhere close to the size of Taiwan’s, which was one of the largest ever made, weighing in at 25×18×18 meters (82×59×59 ft) and an incredible 1,600 pounds. Which perhaps reinvigorated Taiwan’s president Ma to reassert his country’s former claim over all of China.

Big yellow duck in front of a shop in Xiamen

Big yellow duck in front of a shop in Xiamen

These giant yellow ducks proved to not only be silly things to look at but also big money makers. It was reported that Beijing’s duck made the city over US$32.26 million during its one month stay. Beijing revealed it at three locations during this time, all existing tourist sites that charged upwards of 100RMB (US$16) admission fees.

The duck exhibition’s creator, Florentijn Hofman, maintains that each giant inflatable duck “knows no frontiers…doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t have a political connotation.” As such, the likeness of the yellow duck has been at the heart of a commercial feeding frenzy throughout the past six months in China.

Apparently, if you want to sell something in China you stick a big yellow duck next to it. Book stores, clothing outlets, shopping malls, KTV dens, restaurants, just about any business you can fathom have been putting inflated yellow ducks out in front of their shops to attract customers. While smaller sized ducks are placed next to displays selling anything from chocolate to medicine. Like so, this yellow duck has truly become an indiscriminate sales icon. The thing, it seems, can sell everything.

Duck being used in a chocolate display in a department store in Xiamen

Duck being used in a chocolate display in a department store in Xiamen

It is this vagueness of message that is perhaps a part of the appeal. Essentially, the thing means nothing, it’s safe, it’s the ultimate unoffensive, apolitical, niche-less, polymorphous advertising tool — and actually came as a much welcomed replacement of the Gangnam style guy.

These giant ducks were supposed to remind people of the bliss and easy days of their childhood, but all they really showed was that crowds of people will visit just about anything that crowds of people are visiting. It is claimed that humans were originally pack animals, but it’s now clear that we rove in herds.

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As it turns out, Taiwan has a spare giant inflatable duck to replace the one that didn’t make it through the earthquake, which will be back up in Kaohsiung in no time.

And so it continues . . .

Another yellow duck floating in China

Another yellow duck floating in China

Duck inside a bookstore in Shanghai

Duck inside a bookstore in Shanghai

Filed under: China, Travel Guide

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

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  • Mitch November 4, 2013, 11:05 am

    In Shanghai this summer, when it was 100 degrees every day for a week, they made a “cooked duck ferry.” At least that one was kind of funny.

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    • Wade Shepard November 4, 2013, 6:34 pm

      Yes, I agree, that was a good try. If humor was what they were going for it seemed to have worked 🙂

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