Shanghai Diary 2009

Every other year Shanghai alternates with Beijing as the host of Auto Show China. This year’s show, Shanghai Auto Show 2009, was of particular interest due to the major economic, social, and environmental changes affecting the area as well as the rest of the world. Because of these extraordinary conditions I feel that there is no better way than to write this piece than from a personal point of view in order to deliver the full range of experiences that one goes through in Shanghai at this time in history - this is my Shanghai Diary.

A little bit of background is in order. Before we, those who travel on location to cover events such as car shows, travel there is a fair bit of groundwork and preparation in terms of determining what cars need to be covered and who needs to be contacted etc. For me at GCD the guideline is always new green cars…who dun’ it, where, and when. With big news from the Chinese government that they will subsidise research into electric cars and give buyers large subsidies of ‘already up to 60,000 yuan ($8,800) for purchases by taxi fleets and local government agencies’ I was eager to see if the usual ‘green’ stickers had actually transformed into reality. You can check out the results on our Auto Show China Gallery, but lets just say that the stickers were bigger and better applied than in past years. There were some few serious contenders from Geely, BYD, and Chery who have invested heavily in technology taking the lead in China’s electric auto market. The fact that since the economic downturn Chinese automobile manufacturers have decided to put their plans to build and export their cars on hold and focus on designing and making cars for themselves means that the electric dream may very well start in China…and most of all in Shanghai.

I arrive after a long flight from London very early in the morning itching to go for a 400+ km ride on the MAGLEV Transrapid, the first commercial high-speed maglev line in the world. This German made MAGnetically LEVitated train runs 30km in 7min 20 seconds flat, what a rush! Magnets sound quite clean, and particulate-ly speaking they are clean but sometimes what you can’t see will hurt you so when there was a proposal to extend the Maglev line residents in the middle class neighbourhoods around the area protested in unprecedented numbers because they were as worried about the health ramifications of electromagnetic pollution as they were about the depreciation of the value of their newly acquired homes. This reaction exemplifies the new urban China – informed, empowered, and democratically driven.

Arriving at the Longyang Road Station in Pudong it occured to me that although I am stunningly tired the exhibition hall for the show is just a 5 minute walk away and that I should probably go an pick up my press pass to avoid the impending mayhem the following morning. I score! There is no-one in line and unlike past shows in China the system works and I walk away with my credentials in a blink of an eye…off to my hideaway jewel of a hotel from centuries past on the Bund for a rest.

The next day is the first day of the show. Prepared for anything I go to the show open-minded about what green car design means to Chinese manufacturers today. In past shows any claim to green technology, lets put green design aside for a moment, meant badly applied last minute stickers without the internal reality. If you try to ask anyone about the cars they merely feed you a few technical specifications that they have been programmed with and you move on generally empty handed. But every show I expect more, and I hope for a solution to China’s polluted and congested streets. A 30 minute trip in a taxi 4 years ago will take you 1hr today and that's if you are lucky. I filter through the crowds, show my pass, and am in.

The presentations are starting, the top government officials are doing their walkarounds, and the cars are covered with coloured veils. Immediately I reminisce about the first time I put myself on a plane to an auto show in China back in 2004 to Beijing. It was almost impossible to get in, cars were all over the place, they still hadn’t finished preparing the stands, cars looked like they were made in someone’s garage by hand, and design was comical. Man how things have changed in 5 years. For a market that only accepted the 3-box design package as a car worth buying the Auto Show China 2009 showed how much the Chinese have diversified their palate for cars and how quality and international presence is paramount. Most of all I was struck by the fact the every Chinese automotive stand had some element of commitment to green technology, although few translated into actual concept or production cars, their intentions were very real.

The day was exhausting because press releases in English are hard to come by at these shows as are people who speak English, so collecting ‘evidence’ is a treasure hunt. After I have covered everything I need, taken all the pictures I can muster, I join a queue (unheard of in China!) to take a taxi back to the city. Traffic and road-rage pretty much sums up the experience. Shanghai is preparing for the Expo next year and in as much as Beijing was being torn apart for the Olympics so is Shanghai for the 2010 event. Streets have been dug up leaving pedestrians no-where to walk, diggers and dumpers fill the air with dust and dirt, and people are more grumpy than usual.

The city is home to over 18.88 million people of which many have formed a very strong and cohesive middle class with significant purchasing power…namely for cars. They now have to live in a polluted and congested city and they are not accepting this hands down. Slowly they are becoming aware and being concerned about their health and welfare, two things that the government usually took care of in the past. Now with Internet and Media they worry about their and their city’s future in a global sense. The power and potential of the Chinese to change their polluted past lies in its people’s desire and power to change the now, and they are showing signs that they will undo the damage as fast as it was done…once the Expo is over of course.

On the 22nd I was one of the speakers at the Interior Motives China Conference ‘09 on the topic of Eco-Design in the automotive world. I always get excited to speak with others on the matter, especially when I am outside of London’s green crazy utopia…it gives me perspective, ideas, and hope. I won’t go into details because you can read the best bits by Guy Bird at CarDesignNews. What was of more concern to me that day was that it was Earth Day and I had forgotten to mention it at the conference! Luckily, the Expats living in Shanghai didn’t and they put on a fabulous event that celebrated doing something green organised by Greenovate. The highlight was planting your own flowerpot on the roof reflecting an initiative to promote green roof architecture in the city. As you can imagine this was the icing on my green cake.

Shanghai has always been a cultural centre, literally where cultures, Chinese and foreign, came and fed off each other. Now that the culture of green living has permeated their everyday lives and that young and old are embracing the need to improve their quality of life by literally improving the quality of their environment I felt that under all the dust, traffic, and red tape there was a feeling that the green movement is taking roots. If you would have asked me last year if I thought that the Chinese cared about the environment I probably would have cynically said ‘no’, but ask me today and I will say ‘you know what, I think they do’…and in so many ways it affects us all, in every corner of the world!

Back in my real world, i.e. London, after a very long trip I chit chat with co-speaker Peter Stevens, founder of PeterStevensDesign and professor at RCA, on our last leg of the trip – getting home. He lives a sustainable life in the country and I am a carbon-offsetting-city-dweller. It took me 35 minutes door to door; it took him 3.5 hours…quality of life.

* China Outlines Plans for Making Electric Cars, By KEITH BRADSHER Published The New York Times, April 10, 2009