How a Chinese internet meme became a boon for a small alpaca farm in Sheffield, England.
On a bright summer day in this picturesque part of England known as “God’s own country,” a tour bus packed with Chinese tourists snakes its way through the quiet countryside.
The pastoral hills of Yorkshire have long been a veritable playground for climbers, hikers, and bird watchers, who still make up much of the domestic tourism industry.
But a growing number of visitors are coming from China, and they’re there for a completely different reason: to catch a glimpse of an animal that sounds like a Chinese swear word.
Quicksaw Farm near the city of Sheffield is home to a number of endangered animals from across the world, including an extremely rare type of fox, bald guinea pigs, the rhea—a tall South American bird distantly related to the ostrich—and the stunningly beautiful Indian peafowl.
For many Chinese tourists, though, the main attraction is the alpaca, a South American quadruped with a long neck, sheeplike body, and bulbous eyes peering out from underneath a shaggy mop of woolen fur.
“Between March and October, we’ll get two to three coaches in a weekend.”
“Between March and October, we’ll get two to three coaches in a weekend,” says Andy Jones, 36, who runs Mayfield Alpacas on the farm with his wife and brother. “And we get students constantly throughout the week.”
Jones and his family took over the farm about four years ago. He traces the explosion in Chinese visitors to an exchange student at a local university who visited soon after they took over the farm. “She put it on social media, and we went from there really,” he says.
Around 40% of foot traffic and income comes from Chinese visitors, many of them students attending university in England.
Mayfield Alpacas is now on six different tour itineraries, according to Jones, and the parking lot is full of taxis on weekends dropping off and picking up visitors.
Jones estimates that the farm gets about 25,000 visitors annually, with around 40% of foot traffic and income coming from Chinese visitors, many of them students attending university in England.
“I’ve been told by visitors that it’s good luck to stroke an alpaca during an exam period,” he says.
The business is adapting to the influx. Signs around the farm have been translated to Chinese, and Jones plans to print brochures specifically geared toward Chinese visitors.
It all started with a meme
Like so many fads today, the Chinese craze for alpacas can be traced back to an internet meme.
In China, the alpaca resembles something called a “grass-mud horse.” It’s not an actual animal, but rather a pun used to evade censorship on China’s heavily monitored internet, where even swear words can be stricken from the record because of their perceived corrupting social influence.
Grass-mud horse, or caonima 草泥马 in Chinese, happens to sound like a phrase that Beijing cab drivers might use to insult the mother of someone who just cut them off.
And grass-mud horse, or caonima 草泥马 in Chinese, happens to sound like a phrase that Beijing cab drivers might use to insult the mother of someone who just cut them off.
On the Chinese internet, the grass-mud horse emerged in 2009 as a cheeky symbol of resistance against government censorship.
Subversive artists such as Ai Weiwei have used it in their pieces, and social critic Cui Weiping has held it up as an example of how people in China can defy authority even while appearing to follow it.
Chinese internet users have been known to come up with puns and memes to avoid getting messages blocked—or at least delay their removal.
In the case of grass-mud horse, the phrase’s impish humor has made it a universal joke in the Chinese-speaking world.
T-shirts abound with the phrase emblazoned on the front, petting zoos from Shanghai to Taipei house alpacas, and searching “grass-mud horse” on Chinese travel sites generates pictures of tourists posing with alpacas all over the world.
Some websites, including the state-run China Daily, have claimed that caonima is in fact the Chinese word for alpaca. (It isn’t. The actual word is yangtuo 羊驼.)
Riding the tourism wave
Back at Quicksaw Farm, a group of Chinese tourists snap selfies with the animals. They can be heard giggling and referring to the alpaca by its cheekier Chinese name.
The farm doesn’t advertise much within the United Kingdom. Much of the popularity comes from word of mouth and close relationships with universities and tour groups.
“It wouldn’t be beneficial for us to advertise nationally,” Jones says. “Most families around Britain won’t come for this little farm, but we certainly have ties with the universities, and I think it’s just self-perpetuated itself through them sending pictures home and they’re all over Instagram and things like that.”
Students and parents will travel from various parts of the United Kingdom and internationally to meet at the farm. Fleece sheared from the alpacas every summer is turned into trinkets and stuffed toys that have proven extremely popular with Chinese visitors.
Overall, Chinese tourism in the United Kingdom is growing rapidly. The British Tourist Authority predicts there will have been 483,000 visits from China in 2019, an increase of 43% from 2017. This represents a steady climb from 2005, when there were just 95,000 visits from China.
Booking figures from January to June 2019 were up 31% from last year, and the Chinese market is projected to bring over $1.2 billion to the British economy throughout 2019.
Jones recognizes the growing influence of Chinese tourism on his farm. He believes that alongside the alpacas, Chinese tourists also come looking for the archetypal image of pastoral English life.
“The rolling countryside and the hills with a little cottage on it,” he says. “They look exactly like you would imagine a British cottage to look.”
As a zoologist with years of conservation experience under his belt, Jones hopes the farm might encourage visitors to learn more about other animals, not just the alpaca. Regardless of the influx of Chinese tourists, he says his mission of educating visitors about conservation remains unchanged.
“You’ve got to look at your own wildlife and say, ‘We’re trying to save ours,’” he says. “You’ve got some amazing species out there.”