Saturday, 26 April 2008

Girls & Cars

You may have noticed that this BLOG mainly concentrates on things other than what I’m doing in China? Partly because I wanted to keep my employers happy, and partly because there is so much to write about other than car production, that I find myself getting sidetracked quite easily.

However I felt it necessary just to outline what goes into organizing an event as big as an international motor show. Not that I have been organizing the whole show of course – simply my little corner, my very small, very innocuous section of what has to be the largest most extravagant display of automobile prowess that I have ever seen.

Of course I am referring to the Beijing Auto Show 2008, a show that despite the obvious omission of the western media – where were you all? This has to be one of the largest auto shows in the world, and this year professed to be the year that the indigenous Chinese auto warfare, presented their armory to the rest of the world – a year when the world needed to wake up and take the Chinese car industry seriously, before it was too late!

My journey to Beijing started as I say 6 months ago, when I thought that we needed to do something special for the show. Geely had shown the London Taxi at last years Shanghai Auto Show, and although it created an amazingly positive response (It was voted ‘coolest car of the show’) I wanted to stamp my own personality on the event, and if I am totally honest I had always been told what was happening, and what would/wouldn’t be shown – so for me this was my first opportunity of real control. I wanted to take a normal, run of the mill London Taxi and show the world just how versatile the vehicle could be.
With an enormous cabin space, high roof, wide opening doors and a simple electrical architecture that allowed you to have a bit of fun, without calling in NASA to sort out the wiring, It is a vehicle that allows you to let your imagination run wild.

I felt that we should ‘Go Mad’ with the vehicle – it wasn’t so much a question of “would people like it?” more of a question “would people talk about it?” With so much going on in Beijing, it would be hard for us to squeeze our way into the media– so we had to do something very different! The concept was simple “Pimp my ride” meets London Taxi. I got my ideas drawn up by a keen and enthusiastic design company in Taiwan, and presented them to my board, fortunately the great man Li Shufu was present at this particular board meeting – and he loved the idea, after his blessing no one was going to stop me!

So we got the approval, how the hell were we going to make the dam thing! In the UK I could have found a dozen or more specialist vehicle converters and interior trim specialists to help – here in China I was at a loss, no one here did this, everyone was too busy in producing production parts for the booming car market.
We played with the idea of sending the vehicle to Australia, where a lot of the skills we needed could easily be found – but the import and export rules in China made that prohibitively expensive, and enormously complex. The next step was to call in some favors from old friends and colleagues, some of the larger auto suppliers in the world – paranoid about copyright and IPR infringements they were unwilling to share any actual parts with us, but did help with some of the design work around the most important feature – the seats.

The seats would be the focal point of the design, 2 extremely large fully functioning, reclining armchairs swathed in imported Italian leather. With Electronic adjustment, massage and slouch facility they would need to be large enough to seat a baby elephant! Next was the ICE (In Car Entertainment), I didn’t just want to fit the standard 7 inch screens found in most luxury vehicles, so I opted for the 27 inch LCD with a 10 disc DVD / CD changer and enough speakers to blow the windows out – all controlled from a touch pad screen that would pop out on command. Throw in an Italian Steering Wheel, a few LED lights and deep pile carpet the same color as the exterior and BINGO!

So with the interior fixed, what about the exterior? Well this was much harder than we anticipated – the vehicle is so iconic whatever you do to it would either be unnoticeable due to the shear size of the vehicle or would look out of place on such an historic and traditional vehicle – I opted for crazy! There was no point in sticking a couple of bits of chrome, or polishing up the standard wheel trims, this vehicle was meant to make peoples jaw drop – so out came the aftermarket parts catalogues, the pipe bending tools, the welding guns and machining equipment. I found a great team of engineers in nearby Pudong on they went to work on transforming the vehicle. Almost from solid slabs of aluminum and stainless steel they molded running boards, dual exhausts, wheels, golf bag racks, indicator surrounds etc and created a visual masterpiece. Some people loved it, some people hated it – but everyone spoke about it!

The next part of the show was the models, the whole point of a motor show for the exhibitors is to get their vehicles on the magazine and newspaper covers, you can do this in several ways – obviously the best way is to have the newest, best looking exotic piece of luxury vehicle on show, or you can do what most of us not building Ferraris do – and that is to ensure you get a young scantily clad girl to sprawl across the bonnet and hope for the best!
I insisted on the models being western looking – not that Chinese girls aren’t pretty – but because they generally don’t make the magazines or newspapers as often as foreign girls do at an Asian auto show. Secondly and probably most importantly was the clothes – they needed to say sexy, but not vulgar (although Vulgar does get you more chance of pinching the headlines!). I decided on a mix of traditional London Business Attire that included the umbrella and even the Bowler hat, with a traditional (although shorter – much shorter!) Chinese Cheapo. Lastly they need to be pleasant, smiley and experienced. Standing on high heals for hours at a time whilst smiling at some dirty old photographer who is trying to shoot as much cleavage or thigh as possible, is not as easy as it may look.. Get these 3 things right and you could get a milk float on the cover of the next edition of Chinese What Car or Top Gear magazine – well at least the bits of the car that surround the models body! (Yes I agree this is all completely sexist and wrong in today’s modern society – but please don’t send me your hate mail – send it to the magazine and newspaper editors who make these rules!)

The final piece of this jigsaw is the marketing and merchandise that feeds the hungry visitors, desperate to add millions of bags, posters, balloons and brochures to their mountainous collections. People end up carrying the equivalent of 3 tall oak trees away with them. I don’t have a clue what they do with all it, I am sure most of it ends in the rubbish bin, several hours later when they realize that the brochure on the 6 wheeled, garden buggy powered by grass cuttings isn’t really any use to them.
If any one really is serious about global warming – ban this crazy practice and save a few million trees (and the expense of me producing another 80,000 brochures!). The work entailed in getting your ideas into solid matter is incredible, and leaves you worn out and exhausted – especially when you are paranoid about every photo, image, logo, word and color scheme in your marketing arsenal, and when it all finally comes together (more often this is when you run out of time arguing about the shade of black you should use!). You feel inspired to do it all again – only next time better!

So with all the Jigsaw pieces in place, you turn up, unveil the car, help the models onto the stage and hand out your small trees to the media and public – you sit back and wonder if it helps to sell your vehicles? Or does it just provide an opportunity for motoring colleagues to slap each other on the back?
I’m not sure, but to all of those people out there who service the exhibition industry, the taxi drivers, hotel staff, caterers, printers, models, graphic designers stand constructors and security people it’s a way of making a lot of money in a very short period. In my eyes the 2008 Beijing Auto show has been a fantastic success – but that has as much to do with the fact that I managed to survive the whole ordeal, as it does with the great media coverage we got from the Girls we had on display – sorry I meant the Vehicles we had on display!

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Tomb Sweeping

Having arrived back in China this week, I was quickly informed that Friday (The 3rd April) would be a national holiday. Having just spent a week of a 'National’ holidays in the UK where we feel inclined to share enlarged eggs made of chocolate, I was intrigued as to what the significance of this holiday might have been.

In Chinese the holiday is called Qing Ming Jie, which has the literal translation of “Clear/Pure Brightness” but is more commonly known as ‘Tomb Sweeping’ Day. As with all Literal translations it sounds very strange to our western ears – why would you want to sweep a tomb? What is a tomb? Who does it? And Why?

I started to write this Blog with a view, not to concentrate on this ‘Strange’ Chinese festival, but to compare (and ridicule!) a few of our western traditional holidays – Shrove Tuesday, Boxing day, April fools day and bonfire night to name but a few! However whilst investigating this Chinese phenomenon (I can only find other references in Taiwan and HK) I became more and more interested in this seemingly religious festival, in a seemingly unreligious culture?
An ancient tradition spanning over 2500 years, this year sees the holiday raised to national holiday status for the first time. As the name suggests it’s a time to tend the gravesides of your deceased relatives, ancient deities and modern day martyrs.

Coincidently, I live just around the corner from a large cemetery in the Qingpu district of Shanghai and couldn’t work out this week why they had installed a new traffic control system and there was a large police presence all around the streets leading to and from the entrance. It was only when I read in the local Shanghai Daily that some 2.7 million people in Shanghai alone visit the graveyards of relatives on this single day – the police were expecting a crowd, and a crowd is what they got!

People all around this vast country visit the graveyards that populate the suburbs. Cemeteries open at 6.00 am and fill quickly, in the Beijing suburb of Babaoshan some 118,000 people visited the local cemetery on Friday alone. China Daily reports some 100 million nationals taking trips to graveyards, and memorial sites on Friday.

Along with clearing weeds, and generally dusting the gravestone, offerings of cold food are made, these normally comprise of fruit, or deserts and qingtuan - green sticky rice balls (some people I spoke to also mention leaving alcohol for their ancestors to enjoy!). It is believed that the food should be simple, as not to attract the evil spirits in the cemetery, this follows a belief that if you don’t care for the deceased they will become ‘hungry ghosts’ and cause trouble for the living.

One of the big parts of this tradition is the burning of fake money (mingbi) and paper effigies at the graveside. Thought to ensure that the dead are provided for in the afterlife, this can create enormous problems and Last year, mourning activities caused more than 1,400 fires, resulting in three deaths. In 2006, there were more than 2,300 fire accidents linked to the holiday, accounting for one-third of the forest fires that year. This year will be the largest celebration on record – no wonder the authorities aren’t taking any chances.

What did surprise me when trying to learn about this custom, was that since 1949 it has been illegal to be buried in a coffin, and the communist party enforced compulsory cremation. Not surprising I guess when you consider that almost a 25,000 people die on average each day in China – that’s a lot of graves! People found a way around this law people by burrying the ash in coffins and mounting tombstones, which maintained the demand for cemetery space.
As time has gone on, the law has steadily become ignored and the rise is burials is almost back to its previous pre-ban figures. This has also let to a massive rise in the price of available plots (Yinzhai house for the dead), with the average price per sq meter in a Beijing cemetery averaging between $1400 and $4000 (This compares to $2500 for an apartment - Yangzhai, house for the living). Its now fact that it costs you more to be dead than alive!

The average ash burial uses just 1.5 sqm, however the government has been encorouging people to use smaller spaces as the demand for funeral space overburdens availability. Some cemeterys are now offering spaces of just 0.2 sqm, however with a tradition of ensuring comfort for the deceased - these are not prooving popular. The government has recently (April 1st - not an April the 1st joke, I promise) doubled the reward for sea burials to 400 rmb ($50) in a vain attempt to release the ressure on cemetrys - again due to traditions only a very small percentage have been taking this offer.

This all leads me to the reason for not only people wanting to bury their relatives even in these circumstances, but also the reason why Qing Ming Jie is so important. Whilst not religious it comes from the teachings of Confucius (some would argue a religion in itself?), and superstitions around the dead, that promote the belief that you should care for the dead and provide for them to ensure a happy life for you and your family in the future. My thoughts are with the cleaners of the cemeteries – at Boashan cemetery in Beijing last year they removed 20 tons of rubbish left by the mourners during Qing Ming Jie – who knows what the pile will look like this year!