When I first came to China there were very few cars on the roads–just the occasional Shanghai Sedan models with curtains drawn. Only officials had access to cars back then and they did not want to be seen by the people. The streets were instead filled with bicycles — big black bicycles — that were sturdy workhorses — think SUVs with 2 wheels. When the occasional car approached a cyclist, or more likely a clump (what is the proper measure word for cyclist anyway) of cyclists, they always honked, not so much to tell the riders to get out of the way, but more to say “I’m here!”
At night the cars drove without their headlights on to prevent blinding the bikers; however drivers occasionally needed to see as well (the 20 watt light bulbs on the street lamps were no use), so they would suddenly flash their lights on and off real fast (high beams naturally) to see what might be on the road in front of them. This sudden flash of light would, of course temporarily blind the cyclist, sending them careening into the bushes or onto the sidewalks. There’s a story out there — I don’t know if it’s true or an urban legend — that on a trip to New York in the late 1980’s the mayor of Beijing was astonished to discover that cars drove with their lights on at night. He was so impressed that he came back and ordered Beijing drivers to do the same.
In the mid-1990’s the government allowed private citizens to own cars, and thus was the Chinese love affair with the automobile born. Today, everyone (but me) wants to own a car–after all if their neighbors have one, they’d better get one too. As a result, China has developed its own unique ‘car culture’ — I guess you could call it “Motoring with Chinese Characteristics.”
To give you a feel for things, herewith is my list of the top ten features of China’s car culture:
1. Cartoons are a necessary accessory, with Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, and Hello Kitty being the favorites. I have never been able to figure out the connection between cars and cartoons, but it’s there. The more cartoon accessories you have, from seat covers to dashboard toys, the better.
2. Stuffed animals love to ride in cars. Again, the more stuffed animals you can have in your back window the better.
3. The seats must have covers — rattan, fur, silk, you name it — but the original car upholstery must never be visible.
4. Black is beautiful. Black cars are a sign of status, wealth and power. If you have none of those, but have a black car, at least you can make others think you have them.
5. A Buick is considered to be a luxury status vehicle.
6. There are only 2 rules of the road: don’t hit and don’t get hit. Anything you do to accomplish those two objectives is fair game.
7. Your car must be washed on the day before the Chinese Lunar New Year, even if there are 100 cars in line ahead of you at the car wash. We can’t start off the new year with a dirty car now, can we?
8. Most sidewalks double as parking lots.
9. Seat belts are optional. The law actually states that they are not optional, but most drivers ignore that — until they pull up to an intersection with a traffic camera, in which case they will drape it across their lap so it looks like its fastened until they drive past the camera. If a passenger sitting in the front seat of a taxi tries to actually fasten it (usually only a foreigner does this), the driver will look offended. Said foreigner figures it’s his life or the the driver’s face, and opts to fasten it anyway.
10. Automobile-driving city slickers need somewhere to go on the weekends, so they head to villages and resorts in the mountains to eat fish. Most outings in China usually involve eating fish. What’s interesting about this activity in China is the collective nature of it. No one wants to do a weekend drive alone so they hook up with others (usually who have the same model of car) and head to the hills in convoys — car clubbing, I call it. The call goes out to meet at a designated spot on the freeway (usually just outside the toll booth), then off they go.
In March I went with some visitors to the Great Wall, and we spotted this car club out for a weekend drive. It was a club of Peugeot drivers. Notice the flashing lights — to help them all stay together.