Mao Tai time
With the endless toasts of high octane rice wine in between courses and speeches, I felt I was in Mao's China. But if we dined and wined in such luxury, Chairman Mao would have had all of us shot. Or maybe he would turn in his frozen grave. Unless one of us was surnamed Kissinger. Lucky for us, the Foton Chinese executives' grasp of English, all three surnamed Li, is entirely dependent on their young interpreters on company scholarship to University.
Beijing was at its spring time best, inviting a cold front that is said to bring the dusting sands of the Gobi desert. Well, Beijing, perhaps the most magnificent capital of any superpower, seems to keep dusting itself off as it has lots of green spaces and millions of poplar trees to screen away the dust. With its broad Soviet style boulevards and squares, Beijing's sprawl of low rise buildings allows one to appreciate all kinds of architecture from a good photographic distance. No canyons of high rises hovering over narrow streets like Hong Kong and Shanghai. They still have 17 million residents and an additional 4 million daily transients. Its 2-year old airport is probably the most beautiful and most efficient in the world.
Ringed by expressways, the usually unruly Chinese driver behave when they see the ubiquitous traffic sign graphic warning of surveillance cameras. Beijing is car crazy and there is not a brand, luxury or otherwise, that is not on the streets of Beijing. Somehow, the cabs and police cars here look far neater than Shanghai.
Beautiful and cold
Beijing was sunny most of the time with temperatures hovering between 05 to 15 Celsius. Though Foton Philippines and Foton China were footing the bill, the family approach of the Sytin brothers with their wives and the family's 72 year old mother made us Press folk feel homespun pampered. It was charmingly effective.
Our hotel was the Swissôtel, very close to the CBD of Beijing. Its a 90's building with warm shiny wood, warm lighting, lots of browns and lots of halogens and typical of the period, rooms that are tight as to be cozy. Probably built by the time HK was handed over to China. In fact the property is called HK-Macau-Centre. Being Spring, the central heater was on, cooking up the room, but a slightly open window remedies things up.
Foton got us an excellent Chinese tour guide from the government owned agency. Mr. Yin used to live in Florida but decided to go back to China where he is happy working and proud to be Chinese. He was proud of both the peasant and imperial cultural traditions of China. The fellow, was inspired to make us experience China. He paid attention even to Filipino's penchant for sweets or salty snacks by looking for similar but indigenous snacks among Beijing's neighborhood specialty shops, passing them on to us as traffic slows down our bus's progress.
In the footsteps of the Emperor
He was the perfect guide to the Forbidden City, making it a point to give honor to the emperor and the peculiar lifestyle of being surrounded by eunuchs and concubines. We probably came to the Forbidden City at the best possible time, as the authorities kicked out mushrooming curio stores and even a Starbucks just before the 2008 Olympics. The sun and the near freezing windy cold is the best way to appreciate the vastness and the foreboding of the Forbidden City.
Tien An Men
We crossed into Tian An Men square where squads of the PLA and plainclothes police prowl, but we never found them threatening or as abusive as the typical US TSA official. President Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni were on state visit to China so the lamp poles were flying the French tri-color. Paris's plazas must've seemed like parking lots in Beijing.
With all that Forbidden City in our heads, we motored to the other side of town, the scene of the recent glory of the 2008 Olympics. There was the famous Birds Nest stadium, now used as a national stadium. There was the famous H20, the ice cube which is now being divvied up into several swimming pools. And across it is China's entry into the world of exclusive 7-star hotels, the Pangu hotel. We stepped in and it was indeed was luxurious, but it wasn't as luxurious as the 7-star hotels of the Gulf States and the Middle East. Perhaps staying here would justify discovery of why it has an extra 2 stars over what it seemed to be.
As expected, our main conveyance for all our trips was a Foton Coach, which is quite as high quality as they come. Its based on technology and designs from Mercedes Benz, and it was as good as it gets.
Our next stop, in the freezing cold, was a Hutong or walled compound built on Imperial grounds. The area was a midway stop for the Emperor whenever he journeyed between the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace. That journey took a couple of days, even if its not really that far, perhaps 30 minutes by Foton Coach through Beijing's heavy traffic despite their number coding like ours.
The life of an Emperor
This is because the emperor traveled with a lot of people in procession. In the Forbidden City, there are areas where he is always elevated on a sedan chair which means the ground is not royal enough for his feet. So if it took him so long to get somewhere, he had to stop and eat. This is one place they say he did. As usual, we ate food that we didn't have the foggiest of what it was except that it was rare and expensive. And of course, there were the usual toasts of rice wine bottoms up. The concubines serving us were wearing period costume and period shoes on their very small feet.
The next day was plant tour day. Or rather plants tour day. First was the headquarters on an industrial park on a northern suburb of Beijing. We drove 100kms out on a real neat expressway to the main truck plant. There we had one of those conferences where the tea girl and the interpreters were unusually tall and pretty. Like those old Politburo photos, we had cups of tea, coffee, bottled water, soft drink bottle opener - which we never touched as the concubine, er the tea girl, was always ready to wield it. What was missing were the oversized armchairs with doilies.
At 600,000 units a year just short of Daimler, the leading truck maker's global volume, Foton is the biggest commercial vehicle maker in China. It was virtually unknown in the Philippines, until last year, when the PCSO [Philippine Charity Sweepstakes] made news [unrelated to the jackpot] when it bought 375 Ambulance versions of the Foton View. The View looks similar to the Toyota Hi-Ace models of ten years ago, with a broad chrome grille. In China, the View is the People's shuttle, cargo van and ambulance. In less than year, one could now see shiny new Foton trucks jostling with reconditioned Japanese trucks, moving the nation's cargo on the Pan-Philippine Highway.
We did the factory tours and found out that all of the engines fitted to US Brand trucks that use Cummins engines are made here. The Chinese trucks, using Mercedes Benz technology as a joint venture partner, are sold in Europe to even compete with Mercedes Benz. The factories have the latest German and Japanese machines. What was impressive were the young boys and girls who seem to be happy working hard on the production line. They live in nice company owned dormitories, dine in nice canteens, and even have covered parking for their motos, scooters and bicycles.
The Gobi desert effect
Lunch was at a local 5-star hotel in the industrial park. Very grand as opposed to the typical US hotel chains one finds in American industrial parks. The hotel's name was Looong. The buffet was international alright but even the Italian food had a Mongolian spicy taste to it. No surprise as Mongolia and the Gobi desert is just beyond them mountains and the Great Wall.
Bargaining for my life
Our late afternoon was capped with an adventure to Silk Street in Beijing, a tourist trap where one buys knock-off watches, silks, iPhones, golf clubs, you name it. We were given a challenge where we would win a prize. All of us were given 300 US dollars to spend. The object was to list down the tag price, and the bargain price and the purchase price. The guy who would accumulate 6 identified items with the highest cumulative percentage of discounts would win. Virtually no locals shop there though.
Local Chinese really do not pay attention to knock-offs because they probably could even get it cheaper elsewhere. Anyway, it was a game and there was no opt out. Also there was a time limit - one and half hours. Over in Silk Street, the vendors are very physical and even violent. They will even insult you. I got pinched and grabbed to be forced to buy luggage and lingerie. My scarf and my glasses were pulled out. One quiet guy was slapped, but lightly. But that is part of the experience. We took it all in stride as the salesclerks were just having fun with foreigners. Of course many would have their pride pricked and get mad. But most of us, were primed to have fun. Imagine a sales-boy and a sales lady telling you you have nothing upstairs if you bid too low? Or they tell you to get out of their shop.
It was great fun though. To add irony, the next day, our hosts took us to another similar branch of Silk street, nearer our hotel. The Filipino shoppers went on the attack and found the same goods as the same bargain prices without the dramatic and violent bargaining encounters. I must say, our Foton hosts were really after us having a good time, and a learning one at that. After all, they dubbed our media trip as the Great China Experience.
Beijing duck, anyone?
On our 2nd evening we dined at the Peking duck restaurant where Prez. GMA dined last time she was here. Locals call Peking duck by the same name because they believe that historically, Peking duck was invented when Beijing was known as Peking. In fact Peking or Peiping has had many names every time there is a change of dynasty. One not so well known name is Yan Jing, the name of the local beer - a light lager and our usual tipple here. So even if Beijing is Beijing now, even the authorities respect history and call Peking duck, Peking duck.
Our third and last day was to the Beijing Motor show. The venue is even bigger than Shanghai's. The only downer was that the access to the Exhibition center's half a dozen or more car parks was not clearly signposted so that even locals got confused. The logic of assigning which bus can go where is so dependent on how the Security guards interpret their orders.
Unlike most of China's Big Ten motor vehicle producers, Foton does not make cars. Partly owned by the Beijing regional government, Beiqi Foton uses Mercedes Benz technology for its larger trucks, while Mercedes Benz produces cars in China with its JV partner, BAIC [Beijing Automotive]. Beiqi Foton's brands are Auman, Ollin and Aumark. Foton's bigger trucks are exported to Europe and are well known as rivals of Mercedes Benz and MAN in the European Truck racing series. Foton also builds hybrid and electric trolley buses used for municipal public transport. Foton runs a joint venture truck engine manufacturing plant with Cummins of the USA, which is the Cummins supplier for the world market. In order to become a globally competitive motor vehicle exporter, Foton tied up with foreign research institutions and companies such as AVL in Austria, the Bosch Group in Germany, Lotus in the UK, MIM Design in Japan and Eaton of the US.
For ambitions into the passenger car market, Foton's sister companies, BAIC and Brilliance are leading the charge. At the Auto China 2010 show in Beijing, it was getting harder and harder to spot the donor vehicle as more and more Chinese designs are now riding the wave of all the styling trends instead of making derivatives. Like other Chinese car makers, BAIC and Brilliance have hybrids and electric vehicles that replace charged batteries at "fuel stops" instead of waiting for long re-charge cycles.
BAIC, after buying Swedish car maker SAAB's assembly lines just a few months ago, have relaunched big SAAB based models as luxury cars powered by electric power. BAIC also launched a China market only stretched version of the latest Mercedes E-class to match rivals BMW, Audi, Volvo, VW and Buick. Brilliance, tied up with BMW, also produces large cars. BAIC also showed off special military application vehicles that would stand up to Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. In a car show where the most popular cars were the most luxurious, BAIC is well positioned to appeal.
Foton itself is eager to service the other end of the passenger vehicle spectrum. For its LCV's like the Blizzard pick-up, the View and the new MPX van, Foton uses home grown components that are a product of earlier technology transfer JV's with mostly Japanese car and truck makers. Its smallest car-like offering is a is a very interesting micro-van called the Midi. It has 2 swing out doors, 2 sliding doors and a large tailgate, putting it in the same class as European MPVs like the Citroen Berlingo, which inspired it.
The last night's dinner was a Mongolian shabu shabu. As the Foton execs and their student interpreters toasted the Foton Philippines owners, we took time out to catch up on the latest Chinese community gossip about Chinese families involved in both the new car and used car importing industries.
I bid goodbye to the night cap group as four of us will have to go to bed early as our Dragonair flight leaves at 0500hrs. Terminal 3 is the most beautiful airport I've been in. Since we came in via PAL, we arrived in Terminal 2, which is old, but in China, old is relative. Like 90s old. Terminal 2 is still in good working order and is a good design though not as spectacular as Terminal 3. One advantage with Terminal 2 is that it takes in never heard airlines like Polar [of Poland] and Turkmenistan [of Turkmenistan]. Getting through immigration and customs is queue free.
At Terminal 3, its like walking into a covered Tian An Men square with the sun rising against the gigantic windows. With smooth ramps crisscrossing the concourses, you can roll your luggage everywhere and anywhere. Though security is strict [they were very thorough with my mini folding umbrella for too long] they were young giggling girls with friendly smiles. You could not imagine a more smiling Communist country, this being Beijing. Must be the young English speaking Chinese. Its mostly the older, perhaps more Communist, less educated peasants that are true to the rude and crude generation of Chinese. Those young faces could have been one of those having fun in the all night party zones on Beijing's main drag. This, Mr. Yin says, is only 5 years old as Beijing didn't have a night life until the run up for the Olympics. The city fathers seem to be happy to let nightly partying go on if only to give the town a global feel. Beijing, after all, has a huge student population.
The phenomenal growth of the Chinese car market and the industry is making Chinese car makers ramp up their focus in providing quality motoring. China has changed and its prosperity has made it embrace its imperial past. Such were the dinners hosted by the three Mr. Li's of Beiqi Foton and the three Sytin brothers of Foton Philippines. Beijing, the most magnificent of any superpower capital, was the appropriate venue for one to appreciate the products and dream purchases of the youngest consumers in the car making world.