"Key to Ignition"
"I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle."
So a female contestant on the Chinese dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao (If You Are The One) scandalously remarked when an unemployed and presumably carless suitor offered to take her on a date on the back of a bicycle. The inference being that she would rather be in a loveless relationship with a rich man than in a contented one with a poor man. The flippant saying, uttered to an audience of millions on Jiangsu satellite television in 2010, captured the degrading effect of materialism on China’s youth, scandalized China’s netizens, and provoked moral outrage; 1 the remark even led to a crackdown on standards in reality television, particularly on matchmaking shows. But self-interested materialism in courtship is nothing new. The young woman, “BMW Lady,” as she became known, was widely criticized as a gold-digger.2
An editorial in the Global Times sagely reflected on the loss of traditional cultural values, outweighed by the debasing power of money.3 The rise of car culture in China has also led to the decline of a carbon-neutral bicycle culture and the pre-eminence of such a quintessentially Chinese mode of transport. Just look out the window from your taxi at any intersection in any of China’s megacities, and cars increasingly outnumber bikes; in every way – and particularly as a measure of individual economic worth and social status – cars eclipse the humbler, self-propelled form of transport.
Cars are vehicles of not just physical mobility, but also the ever sought after social mobility that’s so essential in China. Even as they spit out fumes that drive the country’s citizens to obsessively monitor AQI apps and cover children’s mouths in brightly colored face masks, cars continue to represent personal liberty and freedom from the shackles of a once stagnant economy. In Hong Kong especially, where real estate prices can make even those with unending pockets weep in desperation, it is not the brownstone, seaside villa, or light-filled penthouse, but the car that is designated as the status-wielding luxury item.
In 2013 the factories of the world’s biggest luxury carmakers, BMW and Daimler, were at full production buoyed by a surge in China’s appetite for their vehicles, more than making up for a decline in Europe’s auto-market.4 An ostentatious European-made luxury car is less a means of transport, more a vehicle for projecting one’s status, a conceited mirror of the self in chrome and leather. In China, brands such as Porsche, Bentley, and Maserati are becoming mundane sites as they share the roads with overloaded tricycles, electric bikes, beaten taxis, and intrepid jaywalkers. Their glittering dealerships jostle with local hole-in-the-wall eateries, high-end fashion labels, pop-up shops, and street sellers hawking magazines and umbrellas, hats and sunglasses.
As a metaphor for the social and economic mobility we are witness to in China, cars abound in the recent work of Liu Dao. Sometimes expertly painted from small collectible models, there are jet-propelled vintage Rolls Royces, police cars driven by bored officers, paper-cut Lamborghinis and minis, and Hong Kong taxis illuminated with LED and video. The car is a stage in many of our artworks, a scene for the mischievous backseat pantomime of naughty “children” teasing unsuspecting travellers, or a dreaded family holiday.
Evidently, China is the world’s biggest market for new cars. The Chinese carmaker BYD is an acronym for “Build Your Dreams.” On October 26th, 2014, two Dutch expatriates long resident in China completed an epic crossing of the old Silk Road from Shanghai to Rotterdam using only Chinese brand cars as a rather protracted publicity stunt.5 In the US, formerly the world’s biggest automotive market, car ownership is less of a dream nowadays. Young people socialize with their handheld mobile devices, and fewer take up car licensing and registration – once considered a potent male-oriented rite of the passage into adulthood – instead they opt to use mass transportation.6
In China the car represents a private space, a proprietorial extension of the home. Many young people have their first sexual encounters in cars, much as young Americans did in the 1950s. Cars were phallic status symbols, mobile bedrooms, a place to “make out” far from the eyes of disapproving elders. If the pimped Hummer’s rockin’, don’t come knockin’. Sexual congress on stiff leather. As more Americans pool or share cars, young people in China insist on using the car as a private object representing the individual, a commodity not to be shared. Perhaps the proprietorial instinct among China’s car owners is yet another effect of the one-child policy. Driving too is often a solitary activity.
One lesson that must be quickly learned upon arriving in China is navigating the unspoken rules that seem to govern behavior on the road. In Hong Kong, except on the most high-traffic intersections and vaulting elevated highways, it is people, and sometimes people on bikes, who seem to have an assumed right of way. In the backstreets, cars must negotiate people, not the other way around. Despite all the chaos, there is a system. The roads are shared in Hong Kong. In other countries, the road belongs to the car and the rules are clear: obedience is a matter of life and death. Still, at midnight, you might see a drunk stray into the path of an oncoming truck.