22 April 2010

An Auto Archaeologist in Beijing

The super-stretch Hongqi (Yin Yeping)

The days when China was car-free are rapidly becoming a historical memory. The Global Times reports:

Just a short drive from the traffic headache that is downtown, but a long way from the mass-produced vehicles that congest Beijing's roads today, lies the Beijing Museum of Classic Cars. This Huairou District museum was set up just last year but has yet to make establish itself in the guidebooks as a tourist draw; Lifestyle went to see if it was worth a visit.

Probably the most eye-catching of around 160 domestic and foreign cars are the Chinese cars designed and manufactured in the 60s, which in-clude over 10 Hongqi (based on a 1955 Chrysler) and Dongfang (a Mercedes- Benz 190 "homage"), which represents the first generation of Chinese vehicle. "[The Dongfang] is very difficult to find. I believe it's the only one left," said curator and owner Luo Wenyou. Only six were originally produced in 1958, entirely by hand, and presented to Mao Zedong by FAW, China's first car manufacturer.

These things look pretty tight, I gotta admit.

When Mao tried the car, he bumped his head on the low door; what could have been a nasty moment was relieved when Mao simply joked that car didn't seem to be for him. FAW president Yao Bin got the hint and produced the Hongqi instead based on the Chrysler design of wider doors and large interiors; hence the Dongfang's tiny production line.

Luo found his abandoned, with no glass or tires but it has been restored to center stage with a refurbished appearance alongside a classic of governmental pomp, the Dongfanghong - or Communist China's answer to the stretch limo. Such leaders as Georges Pompidou, Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk, North Korean leader Kim II Sung and Zhou Enlai have all traveled somewhat in style in this classic.

"Somewhat in style." Classic. I really want to drive one of the Mercedes copies! Apparently this museum also has a wooden Rolls Royce that used to belong to Lenin?!

These cars are a great example of how authenticity is situational. The car can be a copy of a Cadillac or a Mercedes, but seen through the lens of a radically different political context and the ensuing maelstrom of social change, it becomes something more 'authentic' and interesting than the original could ever be.

With the ridiculously fast pace of change in material culture these days, it's great that people like Luo take the initiative to preserve heritage that gets neglected as being 'too new' but is still culturally significant. I mean, somewhere in the back of my brain I still have this image of China being a land of nothing but bicycles, but those days are already long gone.

Also check out coverage from Reuters and Xinhua.

No comments:

Post a Comment