Yes We Can

The princess didn’t want to marry Prince Valium — he was a bore, she was looking for love, and she always got her way. So she and her robot ran out during the wedding, before the “I dos,” and hopped into her new White Mercedes 2001 SEL Limited Edition with a moonroof and all-leather interior. They took off for parts unknown, but before her father, King Roland, could convince her to return to Druidia, the princess found herself captive of Dark Helmet, the commander of the forces of Planet Spaceball. Dark Helmet was on a mission — he wanted to steal the air from Druidia. Why? Because Planet Spaceball was running out of stuff to breathe — to the point that the planet-nation’s leader, President Skroob, was sniffing air from a can, as seen below.




(Get it? Perr-air?)

That’s from the movie Spaceballs, which if you haven’t seen, you should go and watch. It’s make-believe, of course. There is no Druidia, no Prince Valium, no Planet Spaceball, no Dark Helmet. Mercedes never made an SEL Limited Edition, and certainly not one capable of interplanetary travel. Nowhere in the known universe do people sell canned air meant for breathing.

Except for that one time in China when a multi-millionaire did exactly that.

Chen Guangbiao is a Chinese entrepreneur with a solid philanthropy streak. He made his millions from a company he founded, one which focuses on “recycling domestic waste and construction materials,” according to his Wikipedia entry. His net worth is in the $500 million range — sources differ, but that’s the basic ballpark — and in both 2008 and 2009, Forbes named him as one of 48 leading philanthropists in the Asia Pacific Region.

In early 2013, Chen decided to leverage some of his wealth to increase awareness around Chinese air quality problems. It is a major concern. There’s a Twitter account which updates followers on the air quality in Beijing every hour, and regularly, the account shares an Air Quality Index (AQI) reading in the 100+ range, which is “Unhealthy.” At one point in January, according to the New York Times, that Twitter account reported an AQI of 755 — literally off the charts. That’s bad.

So Chen (he claimed) decided to go to some places where the air wasn’t so bad and stick it in soda-like cans. He transported the air to Beijing and started selling fresh-air by the handful, 5 yuan (about 80 cents) per can. His goal wasn’t to make a bunch of money — he was selling the cans at around cost, any proceeds were donated to charity — but he wanted to make a statement. However, he also created what appeared to be a popular product. According to a Reuters report, Chen sold eight million cans of air during a particularly smoggy period last summer.

Bonus Fact: When Spaceballs debuted on New Year’s Day, 1987, actor Rick Moranis (who played Dark Helmet, but you should know that already) was relatively young, at only a few months shy of 34 years old. In 1996, though, he quit acting (save for a half-dozen voice-only roles) despite a relatively successful career with plenty of opportunities for more work. His reasoning? His family. His wife passed away in 1991 after losing her battle with breast cancer, leaving him to parent their two children. He explained to USA Today: “I’m a single parent, and I just found that it was too difficult to manage raising my kids and doing the traveling involved in making movies. So I took a little bit of a break. And the little bit of a break turned into a longer break, and then I found that I really didn’t miss it.”

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RelatedSpaceballs: The Movie, free on demand if you have Amazon Prime.