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Auto Shanghai is the biggest showroom on earth
By Anna Lu



The 16th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition opens its door to the media today as China’s biggest auto show this year prepares to wow car enthusiasts with all the hottest new models.

Auto Shanghai will be open to the public April 22-29.

After covering these shows as an auto industry journalist for three years, I find my enthusiasm ebbing.

At one time, record numbers of exhibitors and visitors made for great headlines. Nowadays, the enduring success of these shows in the world’s largest auto market is the “new norm.”

And those themes that screamed “innovation” have become almost platitudes. (This year’s theme is “Innovation for Upgrading”.)

Maybe I am asking too much. Maybe there are just too many global auto shows that boast of something distinctive. Maybe these shows are just too permeated with hollow glitz and slick promotions.

There are about 10 major auto shows around the world each year that are “musts” for carmakers.

In China, these shows provide a platform for strutting corporate pride and preserving face among competitors.

How strongly the cost-effectiveness of show participation correlates to actual sales in dealer showrooms is uncertain.

What is certain is the size and scale of the Shanghai show. The total display area at the Detroit Auto Show, for example, would fill just one of the eight exhibition halls at this year’s Auto Shanghai.

Here, the idea is to bring as many models as possible into the show, even if they aren’t all new.

Small wonder that the Shanghai Auto Show was relocated this year to a venue twice the size of last year’s site. The exhibition area covers 350,000 square meters, or nearly 100 football fields.

To keep the cars company, if not to fill in some of the emptiness of such a big staging area, scantily dressed models and loud music have become hallmarks. The glitz of it all far overshadows all the foreign shows I have attended.

There were times when I felt like a misfit at a big party, finding myself somewhat bored and lost in the crowds. The emphasis seemed to be more on “show” than “auto.” It’s something you would expect to see in Las Vegas.

Still, for average show goers, it really can be a dazzling and entertaining experience. Fair attendees snap photos of the sexy cars and equally sexy models strutting around them. There are free gifts and recyclable bags filled with brochures. Some stands feature celebrities who steal the thunder from surrounding corporate show areas.

I can’t help but wonder how many auto show visitors actually come to see cars and then wonder how they wandered into such circus.

So much hustle and bustle to remind everyone how important China’s auto market is to the nation and to the world.

Of course, it’s easy to become jaded about it all. That perhaps isn’t quite fair. The fact that the Shanghai Auto Show attracts the biggest industry participation of all international shows gives the domestic industry a big boost of confidence.


Car culture

Compared with much more developed Western auto markets, China is still a bit uncertain whether its car culture measures up to the rest of the world.

It took China less than two decades to transform itself from a country with almost no private car ownership into the world’s biggest car market. One cannot expect any deep culture to establish itself in such a short period and shake off that sense of superficiality.

First- and second-generation car owners are still too busy enjoying the thrill of driving and the status of having one’s own set of wheels. At the auto shows, the most popular shoulder-rubbing places are always those heralding “super” and “ultimate-luxury” cars.

“Come along for the ride,” or cou re nao, in Chinese, is the part of the Chinese culture that I most dislike seeing amplified by the auto shows here.

We just follow the traffic flow in the hall, getting carried away by the volume but having no real sense of where to go and what to see.

If visitors could only have a quiet spot to spend some quality time with cars! And wouldn’t it be enjoyable to be able to chat with product specialists instead of having to listen to sometimes skimpy-clad hawkers?

But wait! The upcoming Shanghai Auto Show might just be a turn for the better.

It has banned the use of showgirls (or boys) and the entry of children. The tone of this auto show has been reset to appeal to serious car-loving adults.

And it also might be less crowded. The new venue for the show, the National Exhibition and Convention Center, is not only bigger, but it is also located further from commercial areas. Supervision will no doubt be tightened after the massive New Year’s Eve stampede on the Bund.

As long as the cars reign as the dominant showstoppers, I will be happy. Even if I do have to elbow my way through the throngs.


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