Text and photography: GG van Rooyen
Shanghai is old — very, very old. In fact, it was established about 1000 years ago.
It also has a long history of affluence. During the 1200s it became the centre of Chinese cotton production, and consequently became one of the most prosperous regions in the country.
Modern Shanghai’s most formative period was during the 1800s. In the middle of the 19th century, Britain’s commercial ambitions led to war with China. The British were desperate to trade with the East, but China wasn’t interested. So with little other option, the British Empire decided to force its way in. The First Opium War broke out in 1839 and lasted for three years.
In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking was signed between the two nations, which allowed Britain to trade freely from certain Chinese ports. Shanghai was one of them.
Much like Hong Kong, Shanghai was transformed into a Western outpost, filled with typically colonial buildings. Britain, France, the US and even Japan established areas in the city populated by their expatriates and dotted with buildings constructed in their native styles.
And like Hong Kong, Shanghai became a very successful city filled with rich, glamorous people. And it largely stayed that way until the communists took over in 1949.
By the end of the 1920s, Shanghai was one of the biggest cities in the world – it had a population of three million – and was often referred to as the Paris of the East.
Only 35 000 of its inhabitants were foreigners, but control of half the city was in their hands, and many of the most prominent buildings were colonial.
When the communists took over, they decided to rid the city of all signs of opulence. Buildings were torn down or stripped of their lavish interiors, foreigners were expelled and those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries were executed. Grand ballrooms that once hosted magnificent parties were transformed into mass-execution chambers.
Needless to say, this once-thriving city was severely crippled.
After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, however, things started to change slowly. Aware that many of his policies weren’t sustainable, Mao’s successors started to remove the restrictions he had put in place. Citizens were regaining their freedom and the government once again welcomed foreign tourism and investment.
Today, many of the old colonial buildings can still be seen in Shanghai, notably along the western bank of the Huangpu River. But this area – traditionally one of the city’s most affluent — has been eclipsed by Shanghai’s modern Pudong region.
In 1990, farmland east of the river was declared a special economic zone by the Chinese government. This muddy patch of earth was earmarked to be the new financial nucleus of Shanghai.
And while it is hard to believe, within just 20 years this once rural area has become a modern district boasting one of the most impressive skylines in the world.
It is dominated by the Oriental Pearl TV and Radio Tower (a massive, futuristic tower that looks like a spaceship), the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Centre. The Jin Mao Tower has 88 floors and is 414m high, while the World Financial Centre has 101 storeys and stretches 492m into the air.
The skyline might have changed, but Shanghai remains a very cosmopolitan city. Indeed, the city’s citizens seem to have an interest in Western trends and fashions that borders on obsession. The streets are filled with people dressed in the latest expensive branded clothing and looking as if they have just stepped out of a salon. Advertisements for brands such as Longines, Breitling, Prada and Apple are everywhere. As we drove through the city, we saw shiny Porsche, Rolls-Royce and Spyker dealerships.
In truth, Shanghai is once again an opulent – even decadent – city that caters for the rich. Purchasing an apartment in Pudong, for example, is ridiculously expensive. An apartment in this much-coveted area can cost RMB150 000 (R153 000) per square metre. That means that even a modest apartment of 100 square metres can cost more than R15-million.
Owning a car in Shanghai isn’t cheap, either. Since the city has a population of more than 17-million, congestion is an understandable problem. So to reduce traffic, government has made it difficult to register new vehicles. To get a licence plate for new cars, prospective owners have to enter a lottery, and bid. Only a limited number of plates are available, so bids quickly skyrocket. Typically, licence plates sell for around R50 000. That means the owner of a cheap domestic car will pay more for the vehicle’s registration than for the actual car.
Why not simply register it in another city? Well, only locally-registered cars are allowed on the main roads during rush hour, so a vehicle registered in a different city is pretty much useless.
Imported consumer goods are also very expensive in China – far more expensive than in South Africa. Tax on goods is between 30% and 40%, but Shanghai citizens don’t seem to mind. They won’t allow steep prices to prevent them from owning the latest designer shoes, shiny watches and fast cars.
Considering the popularity of Western brands in Shanghai, the Auto Shanghai Show creates an irresistible opportunity for manufacturers to introduce their new vehicles to the biggest automotive market in the world.
It would be difficult to find a more receptive audience. Or one with more purchasing power.
To be sure, poverty in China is a problem, but with a population of more than 1,3-billion, the country still has a middle class that’s larger than the entire US population! And annual car sales are, well, quite impressive.
In 2009, almost 14-million vehicles were produced in China, and most of them were sold into the domestic market. Only 370 000 were exported.
When the show was last held in Shanghai in 2009 (it was held in Beijing in 2010) it was a massive success. There were 1500 exhibitors from 25 countries, more than 600 000 visitors and 7287 journalists from 38 countries.
No numbers for this year had been released at the time of writing, but it’s safe to say that the show was even bigger.
There were 13 massive halls and countless outside exhibition areas. We attended on the two press days, and since they weren’t open to the public, we expected things to be reasonably quiet. This wasn’t the case. The place was completely packed. There was barely room to move. Visiting the show on the public days – especially over the weekend – must have been excruciating.
But then again, if you live in a country with 1,3-billion people, you get used to queuing. Here’s an example. In 2010, the World Expo was held in Shanghai. On one particular day, 1,3-million people attended.
Auto Shanghai 2011 probably didn’t garner that sort of visitor numbers, but attendance must surely have been very good.
The reason people flocked to the show from all over the world, of course, was to see the cars. And for fans of SUVs and 4x4s, Auto Shanghai offered quite a few treats.
The most notable unveiling at the show was Audi’s new Q3 – the company’s answer to the BMW X1. This smaller sibling to the Q5 and Q7 has been in production for quite some time, so we were very eager to see it.
What does it look like in the flesh? Well, that’s hard to say. The stand was so overrun that it was tough to get an impression of the vehicle.
What is clear, though, is that it is pretty small. It shares its platform with the newest Tiguan, but somehow it feels smaller than VW’s vehicle. According to Audi, it is 239mm shorter, 50mm narrower and 53mm lower than the Q5. The weight of the front-wheel-drive model is 1500kg.
The Q3 will debut with three four-cylinder engine options. Two petrol engines and one oilburner will be on offer, with power output ranging from 103 kW in the two-litre diesel model to 155 kW in the bigger petrol engine.
Another impressive vehicle on display was Subaru’s XV Concept. This crossover looks a lot like the company’s Outback, but is shorter, narrower and lower.
There’s no official word on when (or if) this vehicle will enter production, but it is about as production-ready as a concept vehicle can possibly be, so we expect to see it on showroom floors in the very near future.
Peugeot pulled the covers off its SXC Concept – a vehicle designed by the Peugeot Style Studios of the China Tech Center in Shanghai.
The company describes it as a ?reinterpretation of the crossover?, though it looks far more like a sporty hatch than it does a rugged SUV. It is powered by a 1,6-litre turbodiesel engine that creates 162 kW and is mated to a 70 kW electric motor.
Buick displayed one of the more unusual vehicles at the show – an SUV with two massive scissor-style doors.
Called the Envision, the concept is a joint project between Shanghai GM and the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center, and has been designed specifically with the Asian market in mind. According to GM, the vehicle hints at future Asian models.
As is often the case with concept vehicles nowadays, the Envision is a hybrid and has a two-litre petrol engine that’s coupled to two electric motors.
Needless to say, Chinese manufacturers also used Auto Shanghai to reveal their latest models to the world. And Great Wall Motors – China’s largest SUV and bakkie manufacturer – in particular unveiled a large number of impressive new vehicles.
On the bakkie front, the company displayed its Wingle 5 pick-up and Wingle CL pick-up. The Wingle 5 was recently released in South Africa as the Steed 5, and is an impressive bakkie that sports robust and aggressive styling.
Two engines are available locally – a 2,5-litre diesel engine that generates 80 kW of power and 300 Nm of torque, and a 2,4-litre petrol model that offers 100 kW and 200 Nm of torque.
The Wingle CL is a concept vehicle, and its most notable feature is its size. Simply put, it’s big. Bigger, in fact, than a Ford F-150. It is 5550mm long, 1885mm wide and 1845mm tall.
Will it enter production, though? We’ll have to wait and see.
What has entered production, however, is GWM’s Haval H6. Last year, the company unveiled the H6 concept at the Auto China 2010 Motor Show in Beijing. This year it unveiled the production version.
The vehicle boasts high-end features such as intelligent wipers, a satellite navigation system, a tyre monitoring system and side airbags.
It hasn’t officially been decided whether the H6 will be brought to our shores, but GWM South Africa has told us that the SUV will probably arrive in South Africa in 2012.
Another GWM SUV that was at the Shanghai show – the H5 – will definitely be in South Africa soon.
The H5, a modern and spacious SUV that boasts very good finishes, should be arriving in South Africa as you read this. Initially, a 2,4-litre petrol model will be launched, but it will be followed quickly by a two-litre diesel version. Both models will be offered in 4×4, and an automatic diesel version will arrive in the second half of 2011. Prices will range from around R210 000 for the 2,4-litre petrol 4×2, to R260 000 for the two-litre diesel 4×4.
A final SUV unveiled by GWM at the show was its IF Concept – a BMW X6-like behemoth that will apparently enter production in 2013. It boasts climate control, six airbags and keyless entry.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
As most of you probably know, the New York International Auto Show overlapped with Auto Shanghai 2011. This shouldn’t have happened, but due to an administrative gaffe of rather epic proportions, both events were scheduled for the same week.
And predictably, this left many companies with a problem: which show should they focus on?
Audi, preparing to launch its inevitably successful Q3, decided to send its US executives to New York, and its global leaders to Shanghai. No doubt, then, which market Audi feels is the more important.
And it isn’t alone. All the prominent manufacturers decided that a large presence at Shanghai was crucial. BMW’s stand consumed 3800 square metres.
China is calling. And no company can afford to ignore it.