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Asia Cashes In on the Cachet of 'California'

In Hong Kong and elsewhere, the Golden State's name helps sell everything from fast food to fitness centers to pets.


HONG KONG — The giant billboard promises sunshine, palm trees and muscular bodies.

This is the California Fitness Center, one of three multistory exercise clubs in Hong Kong that push the idealized California dream of the perfect body: washboard abdomen and bulging pectorals.

The club members, seemingly mustered day and night in frenetic columns several rows deep, are part of the display, clearly visible through plate-glass windows astride or atop their computerized machines. In busy Hong Kong, which already gives the impression of a perpetual treadmill, these are treadmills within a treadmill. Never has exercise been quite so public.

"We decided on the name California because we figured maybe everybody doesn't like the United States, but they like California," California Fitness Center founder-owner Ray Wilson said during a recent visit to Hong Kong. "California means Hollywood. It means glamour. It means the 'in-thing.' "

Wilson is by no means the only one to exploit the California name and image here. A remarkable number of businesses, ranging from fast-food joints to pet shops, have California in their names.

Whatever the problems in the real California, in this part of Asia, Dream California sells everything from spicy noodles to household pets. In Hong Kong alone there are more than 25 companies hitching their star to the Golden State, including the California Shoe Store, the California Optical Co., the California School of Commerce and the California Red Karaoke Box, a popular chain of late-night song bars. Most have no real or legal connection to California itself.

Across the harbor in Kowloon is California Air Ltd., a company that sells air purifiers imported from Israel. "We felt that when people think of California," owner Joe Ng said, in a statement that might astonish some Southern Californians, "they think of someplace fresh, they think of nature, open space, sunny skies, clean air, pure water. And that's what people want when they buy air purifiers."

In Asia, the California theme is not unique to Hong Kong. Use of the state name abounds in Japan, in Taiwan--where it is popular because the large number of Taiwanese educated in California or who have relatives there--and even on the Chinese mainland. Permutations, such as the L.A. Cafe, in Hong Kong, and the San Francisco Brewing Co., in Beijing, also abound.

Part of the reason for the popularity of the California name here is that the Chinese rendering--jia zhou in Mandarin and ga chau in Cantonese--involves only two simple characters and is easy to read and remember.

And sometimes the reasons for using the state name are more idiosyncratic.

Koo Hok Sin, owner of the California Pet Shop in Kowloon, said he chose the name because when he opened the shop in 1992, he bought his first dogs from a breeder in California.

"I thought," he said, "since these dogs came from California, why not call it the California Pet Shop?" Never mind that all of his dogs these days come from local breeders.

But most of the justification for the California-zation of Asia has to do with the legendary qualities of the Golden State.

"The reason that I chose California," said Allan Zeman, owner of the California Restaurant in Hong Kong's Central District, "was that, at that time 17 years ago, Hong Kong was very British but the expatriate community was made up of a lot of different nationalities--British, French, German. Everyone had a different culture, but I knew in my heart that everyone had a kind of affinity for California. I thought to myself: California sun, women, beaches, Beverly."

For 70-year-old Wilson, one of the pioneers of the international health club phenomenon, the success of his California Fitness Centers here has an ironic twist. With three clubs in Hong Kong and one in Singapore, he now dreams of opening more than 100 across Asia. "We think South Korea is going to be big," he said, "and Taiwan and the Philippines."

Wilson founded the Family Fitness Centers, a 72-club chain that he sold to the 24 Hour Fitness chain. Before that, in the 1960s, he owned a 160-franchise chain known as European Health Spas.

"I called them European, because at the time, that gave them a glamorous image in the United States," he said.

Now, he said, if he were to move into Europe, California is the name he would use to evoke the image and the glamour.

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