cars and taxis


cars and taxis
Despite the newfound prominence of the private sedan in post-socialist China, the history of the motorized vehicle in China has been one marked by scorn, rejection and opprobrium. If the slick, latest-model cars of the 1990s and the new millennium are a mobile advertisement for the branding of international capital, throughout Chinese modern history the car has equally been a moving target for popular discontent, protest and defacement.
Although the Empress Dowager Cixi was offered and rejected the use of a German Benz to motor out to her beloved Summer Palace, early suspicions of the motor vehicle were far from being restricted to issues of courtly protocol. In June 1907, when the first Beijing-Paris car marathon was held, the Chinese press speculated that what lay behind such a seemingly innocuous sporting event was a Western plot to survey the geography of inland China so as both to gauge popular sentiment and to facilitate the imperial powers building communications and trade routes into the nation’s heartland.
Such suspicions and concerns (many of which were well founded) continued throughout the century. The sense of aggrieved nationalism that flourished at the time of the economic opening-up of the 1980s (and that fed into the incipient patriotism of the 1990s and beyond) found particular expression in the highly popular teledocumentary River Elegy, made in 1988. One of the authors of that programme, Su Xiaokang, later a prominent dissident-in-exile, gave voice to the widespread disquiet in the following way:
Over the past century we have continually been losers. First we lost to England, then to the eight powers during the Boxer Rebellion, then to the Japanese. Having finally got rid of the Japanese, New China enjoyed a short period of pride and achievement. Who was to guess that when we woke up from the thirty-odd years of internal turmoil we had created, we found ourselves in the company of nations like Tanzania and Zambia. Even South Korea and Singapore were ahead of us. And as for the Japanese, they were the ones laughing now that they were back with their Toshibas, Hitachis, Toyotas, Crowns, Yamahas and Cassios.
This sense of frustration, reflecting as it did a consumerist imperative that was both fuelled and enraged by the lure of foreign goods, had only a few years earlier sparked an outbreak of violence aimed against the motor vehicle. On 19 May 1985, a soccer riot broke out in Beijing after the local team was trounced by visitors from Hong Kong. Gangs of angry young men roamed the streets outside the stadium after the game, detaining every passing taxi to shout and jeer at the drivers. One particularly vociferous rioter screamed: ‘Fuck it, while I spend my hard-earned money to go to some lousy game, these guys are sitting in their cars pulling in a coupla hundred bucks a night. Get the bastards!’ The mob soon set to spitting on windows, kicking doors and beating bonnets.
Foreign journalists who observed the mayhem drew parallels between the brutish anti-foreignism and the Boxer rebels of 1900 whose xenophobia led to the occupation of Beijing by the colonial powers. But Liu Xinwu, a novelist who wrote a ‘reportage’ account of the 1985 riot, ‘Zooming In on May 19’, remarked that the Boxers had sworn an oath starting with the words ‘Heavenly spirits, earthly wraiths/We beg all masters to answer our call’, and ending with a plea for the spirits of traditional China ‘to lead 100,000 heavenly troops’ to support their anti-foreign cause. The rioters of 1985, however, were far from being such a fanatical group of protesters. ‘If there were to have been a chant’, Liu observed, ‘it would probably go like this’:
Heavenly spirits, earthly wraiths
We all want to have a good time,
Let’s evoke Xi Xiulan, Zhang Mingmin,
Wang Mingquan, Xu Xiaoming;
Let’s watch [the TV series] Huo Yuanjia and Love Ties Together the Rivers and Mountains
We want jeans,
We want discos and Washi Cosmetics,
We want Sharp, Toshiba and Hitachi electrical appliances,
We want Suzuki, Yamaha, plus Seiko and Citizen.
They are the most ardent consumers of popular Hong Kong culture and Japanese products. The real reason they targeted foreigners and Hong Kong people during the incident was that they dislike the way these people enjoy special privileges in Beijing and flaunt their superiority. What the mob was expressing was a long-repressed resentment and jealousy. The rioters eventually managed to overturn a vehicle or two and numerous arrests and police action finally quelled the disturbance.
It was little surprise that taxis attracted such ire, for they provided the first privileged private space in reformist China, for both drivers and passengers alike. Long before the self-driving car owner appeared in the 1990s, taxi drivers were a class apart: they were mobile, free from the fetters of their original work units, and their wages were based on kilometres travelled, rather than according to the old rigid socialist pay scale.
Initially, taxi drivers were recruited from among former government chauffeurs or lorry drivers, but as the urban economic reforms took hold during the 1980s, many men and women quit their state jobs to drive taxis, attracted by the promise of better pay and relative freedom. Soon the taxi driver, a kind of entrepreneur with state backing, became one of the most liminal figures in the urban landscape. Not only did they transport more traditional fares around the city, they also ferried prostitutes (members of another newly visible class of entrepreneur) from hotel to hotel, and provided the covert environment for illicit contacts of all descriptions.
Taxi drivers also constituted one of the most garrulous and outspoken groups in the society: they could declaim on issues of the moment with little thought of being caught out or penalized as they coursed their way around the city streets, spreading gossip and generating innuendo as they went. For foreign journalists working in the restrictive media environment of Deng Xiaoping’s China, the taxi driver was a boon companion, and he or she provided many of the vox populi quotes that peppered international news reports issuing from Beijing.
The interior of those early taxis was particular. Prior to the advent of car-washing stations in the early 1990s (including ‘digital and computerized’ car cleaning), a feather-duster for the daily removal of urban grime was a feature of the rear window of virtually every taxi (now they are generally relegated to the rear boot), and the drivers would don grubby white gloves to carry out the operation. Day-Glo-coloured and sickly-sweet air-freshener would feature on the front dash, and a large jar (cha gangzi—usually an old Nescafé instant-coffee jar) of thickly-brewed Chinese tea would ride shotgun near the handbrake by the driver. The passenger windows were often cloaked with green or brown gauze shades, the back seat covered in tan cloth with fussy antimacassars, and woven mat seat coverings were (and still are) often features on the seats—the taxi a miniaturized version of the official audience hall or meeting room, always open for a session the minute a new fare gets in. These appointments presaged the busy interiors of the future: deodorizers, tinted windows, rear-view mirror adornments, frilly tissue boxes and head-wagging dogs.
Since 1989, however, the taxi has also been dragooned into more direct service for the state. Starting with the preparations for the 1991 Asian Games in Beijing, taxi drivers have regularly been used as hospitality representatives and propagandists for official campaigns aimed at international visitors and foreign residents. For years, taxi companies have been required to festoon their vehicles with public service announcements (or, to use the language of the past, ‘propaganda slogans’). In the more quotidian realm, the taxi has also given birth its own particular vocabulary. The Cantonese sinicization of the word ‘taxi’, diksee, has been in common use in the former colony of Hong Kong for many decades. When the cultural influence of south China began to expand northward in the 1980s, the standard Chinese pronunciation of the term, dishi, as opposed to the official term for taxi, chuzuche (vehicle available for rent), became fashionable. In Beijing slang, an argot renowned for abbreviations and humorous word play, this was simply reduced to di. Thus, ‘to hail a taxi’ or ‘take a cab’ became dadi (travel by taxi). Soon di was being used to describe a range of locomotive possibilities unrelated to its Hong Kong Cantonese origins: tui’rdi (leg taxi) meant to walk; rendi (human taxi) was a new word for pedicab. Juedi (crippled taxi) indicated a motorized wheelchair; while miandi or ‘bread taxi’ indicated a mini-bus taxi (the shape of the vehicle being likened to a loaf of bread or mianbao). Qiongdi (pauper’s taxi) was another name for Xiali-make vehicles, the cheapest taxi in Beijing from the late 1990s; and, last but not least, there is the boyindi (Boeing taxi) for ‘plane’
From 1991 until the mid 1990s, a new taxi and car craze hit China when laminated portraits of Mao Zedong started appearing hanging in the windscreens or set up on the dashboards of vehicles throughout the country. The fad reportedly originated in Guangdong province after a person or people miraculously avoided injury in a traffic accident because, it was said, their vehicle had been protected by a portrait of Mao placed on the dash. Like the door gods and lucky talismans that were traditionally used to adorn the home to ward off malign influences, the Mao portrait was suddenly recognized as a way to ensure safety and good fortune in the fast-paced urban environment of highway and car.
The laminated Mao mobiles were simply called guawu (hangings). During the height of the fad, they were sold all over the country and by a range of outlets: from street-side stalls and temple stores to the Mao Mausoleum in the heart of Tiananmen Square itself. In design they varied widely. The more austere simply featured a picture of Mao, the most popular representations being of ‘the young Mao’: that is, the retouched picture of Mao in a Red Army uniform taken by Edgar Snow in the 1930s, or the official portrait of the aged Mao, although Mao in a PLA uniform dating from the early Cultural Revolution was also common. More elaborate hangings had the Mao picture framed in mock-Chinese temples, or with gold ingots hanging from the picture, with more traditional benedictions, like ‘May the winds fill your sails’ (yifan fengshun) or ‘May you make a fortune’ (gongxi facai) on the reverse side (see Neo-Maoism and Mao Fever).
But luck can also be a matter of numbers. Although cars might not legitimately require the ministrations of fengshui specialists (geomancers), the wrong number plate (with too many 4s—si, a homophone for ‘death’, for instance) can be challenging. That is why plates with the digit 8 (fa or fat in Cantonese, ‘prosper/thrive’) sell for such a premium at auctions, not only in the Chinese cultural world but internationally as well. In 2002, there was an abortive attempt to market personalized number plates, but rakish drivers wanted plates reading ‘IAM:007’ or ‘TMD’ (Theatre Missile Defence) and the plan was shelved.
The melding of hoary traditions, old socialist icons and new commercial practices became possible in just this environment of economic boom and retro fashion. By employing the tropes of nostalgia typified by the 1990s Mao cult or the numerological fixation on number plates, state enterprises increasingly attempted to cast themselves as the representatives both of national and of consumer interests. An egregious example of this style of agitprop appeared in early 1997 when the Number One Automobile Plant (suitably renamed The Number One Automobile Production Consortium of China’) in Changchun, Jilin province, now a joint venture invested with a new lease on life, initiated a national competition for an advertising slogan to launch the remodelled Maoist-era limousine, the Red Flag, re-branded as the ‘Audi-Chrysler-Red Flag’. The advertisement took up nearly half a page in the weekend edition of Beijing Youth News in early 1997:
All Chinese celebrated the birth of the original ‘Red Flag’ limousine. All Chinese have been proud of the brilliant glories of the ‘Red Flag’. Today, we are appealing to every Chinese to take up their pens and celebrate the great leap of a new generation of ‘Red Flag’ cars.
In 1958, designers at the Number One Plant combined their extraordinary talents to create the first generation of Chinese luxury limousine, the ‘Red Flag’. They wrote the first page in the history of China’s automotive industry.
As the paramount make of Chinese vehicle, the ‘Red Flag’ is not merely a legend in motoring history. She crystallizes the ceaseless faith, the tireless struggles, and the fiery emotion of the whole country over a period of dozens of years and a number of generations. She symbolizes the eternal glories of the wisdom and the spirit of the Chinese nation.
The ‘Red Flag’ is a National Car of the latest international standard.
We are determined to create a new slogan for the ‘Red Flag’ that will resonate everywhere. We want to raise high the bright red banner of Chinese-manufactured cars, the banner of our national industry. We need a slogan from every warm-blooded Chinese. If you want to make your contribution to the resurgence of the national automotive industry then pick up your pen and participate in our advertising slogan campaign!!
The retooling of the lumbering limos of high socialism was not restricted to the Red Flag. In 2001, General Motors in Shanghai was producing a Buick GLX, for, as the journalist Lynne O’Donnell remarked, ‘the cadre who knows what he wants in luxury road travel’. The sedan was designed for specific Chinese road and bureaucratic conditions to be, as O’Donnell wrote, a:
‘rear-passenger oriented’ luxury vehicle that was targeted at chauffeur-driven officials and executives. The leg room for the back seat was extended, a head-rest was added, pockets were put on the back of the front seats and the panel between the two front seats had controls for the air conditioning and heating as well as the radio, and a fancy ashtray was thrown in for good measure.
In keeping with adjustment to China’s cadreculture, Volkswagen went to work on the Audi A6 (like the Red Flag, also manufactured in Changchun) and added nine centimetres of legroom for the lounging comfort of the back-seat passengers.
We bleed and sweat, earning millions for the factory.
They go buy a tortoiseshell [sedan], and sit like tortoises [bastards] inside.
No matter how small the village, the head gets a Bluebird;
Regardless of their rank, they all take to Audis.
Even when the business is broke, the bosses flaunt their Hondas;
The workers might get zilch, but they still buy Santanas.
(late 1990s shunkouliu (rhyming doggerel) on official corruption)
In the mid 1990s there were 30 million car licence holders in China; by mid 2001 that number had more than doubled and was approaching 75 million. With over 60 million motor vehicles on the country’s roads, and with an increase of some 18 per cent annually, there was speculation that by the end of the first decade of the new century one in three urban families would be motorized. Not surprisingly, driving schools are a growth industry, and they attract customers of all ages with such advertising hooks such as ‘I might not have a car yet, but I do have a licence’ and ‘Wanquan Driving School will set you on the road to the future’. Even the precipitous increase in road fatalities has done little to detract from the car boom. There were some 94,000 deaths in 2000, nearly a 10 per cent increase over 1999. If nothing else, this was a boon for car security and safety specialists, and airbags and seatbelts are only some of the new features in cars that are more often than not becalmed in the traffic snarls that choke the country’s urban roads. On-board domestic luxuries—TVs, digital links, elaborate sound systems, DVD players, game platforms, and the like—are also not the stuff of some future utopia, but something just around the next bend.
Finally, the vast boulevards envisaged as futuristic highways for socialist modernity since the avowal of socialism in all but name have been filling up with the joint-venture vehicles of international capitalism. In Canton and Shanghai the narrow streets and old suburbs have been giving way to a new urban architecture of the flyover, the bypass and the tunnel, in which there is sparse room for the bikes that were once a trademark of mainland Chinese life—although attempts to outlaw bicycles in some Chinese cities in favour of motorized traffic have generally failed. And everywhere there are traffic jams and road rage.
If nothing else, this has all been a boost for radio programmes targeted at frustrated motorists who can ring up talk-back shows on their mobiles and participate in the imagined community of migratory white-collar workers.
See also: bridges; highways; ring roads; streets; transportation patterns (urban)
GEREMIE R.BARMÉ

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Cars of the Philippines — refers to the automobile marketing and its evolution in the Philippines, as well as a comprehensive list of every car currently sold with a short description of the car s manufacturer history in the country. Philippine automotive marketing… …   Wikipedia

  • Cars in Mexico — Cars of Mexico refers to the automobile marketing and its evolution in Mexico, as well as a comprehensive list of every car currently sold with a short description of the car s manufacturer history in the country. Mexican automotive history Early …   Wikipedia

  • Taxis de New York — Taxis à New York pendant l heure de pointe à Midtown dans Manhattan. Les taxis de New York, avec leur peinture jaune distinctive, sont une icône largement reconnue de la ville de New York[1]. Les taxis sont explo …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Carriacou and Petite Martinique — Carriacou Island in the Caribbean Sea, is the largest island of the Grenadines, an archipelago in the Windward Islands chain. The island is 13 sq miles (34 km²), and a dependency of Grenada with a population of 4,595 (1991 census). The main… …   Wikipedia

  • political icons (and art) — Political figures, artists, intellectuals and unruly elements have readily used emblems, icons and cultural paraphernalia both to express themselves and to claim, or generate, cultural capital. Sometimes the commercial sector has treated Party… …   Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture

  • Transport in Saint Kitts and Nevis — Transport within the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts Nevis (one country, a two island federation) includes normal road traffic, public buses, taxis, ferries, airports, and one unusual railway.Basseterre is the hub for all major roads on the island …   Wikipedia

  • Chevron Cars Ltd — This article is about the manufacturer of racing cars, for the Chevron promotional cartoon see Chevron Cars. Chevron Cars Ltd. is a manufacturer of racing cars, founded by Derek Bennett in 1965. Following Bennett s death in 1978, the firm has… …   Wikipedia

  • List of automobile model and marque oddities — ingle vehicle marquesAutomobile manufacturers generally attempt to have a family of vehicles sold under a single marque. Occasionally, however, manufacturers have deemed it important to sell a single vehicle under its own marque. Sometimes this… …   Wikipedia

  • Art, Antiques, and Collections — ▪ 2003 Introduction       In 2002 major exhibitions such as Documenta 11 reflected the diverse nature of contemporary art: artists from a variety of cultures received widespread recognition for work ranging from installation to video to painting …   Universalium

  • RELIGIOUS LIFE AND COMMUNITIES — Jews UNDER OTTOMAN RULE The Jews of the pre Zionist old yishuv, both sephardim (from the Orient) and ashkenazim (of European origin), dedicated their lives to the fulfillment of religious precepts: the study of the torah and the meticulous… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism


Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.