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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Cars in China


The New York Times
January 26, 1913

They Are Slow Customers, but Loyal to a "Chop" or Trademark—Prefer Brown Cars.


Most of These Are of Medium Price—No Auto Factory in China, but Natives are Good Mechanics.

Automobiles are no longer an unfamiliar sight in China. On the roads, where one formerly met the mandarin in his handsome carriage behind a pair of large Australian horses, one now sees him in the latest model of American, English, French or German car, according to M. A. Greenfield, importer of China, now in this country arranging to establish a distributing agency for cars for the Chinese Republic, with headquarters at Shanghai.

"You would be somewhat astonished," he says, "at the number of automobiles you see on the drive between the Shanghai bund and the Bubbling Well Road, and on to Zi-Ca-Wei. On any pleasant day you meet mandarins and merchants, with their families, behind well-groomed chauffeurs, enjoying themselves exactly like prosperous Americans. Well-tailored European or American clothes of latest styles are worn by many of these same mandarins and merchants. Their chauffeurs have the smartest of chauffeur costumes, caps, goggles, puttees—everything.

"Brown is the preferred color. But you do not have to leap to the side of road for your life. The Chinese are averse to speeding. It is rare to see a machine exceeding twenty miles an hour. There were few automobiles in the whole of China until about two years ago. The advent of the republic has quickened progress along all lines, and, of course, the automobile is one of the most distinguishing marks of progress.

"The introduction of the automobile into the scene, however, makes a singular picture. The age-old methods of transportation have not been superseded by any means. Side-by-side, on the same road, you may see the smartest models of cars with the jinrikisha and the 'wheelbarrow,' a one-wheel vehicle with three passengers nicely balanced on each side, pushed by the husky Captain of the outfit. The passengers pay a fare equal to about one cent each for a practically unlimited trip. So far, the automobile is confined to the wealthy.

The rich Chinese is a liberal spender. He does not haggle over the price of an article, once he is convinced that it is what he wants. I have seen a mandarin pay $2,500 for a pair of Australian horses within five minutes after he had laid his eyes on them. Selling an automobile to a Chinese, though, is not so easy. The Chinese will not be hurried. When you have picked the customer for your car, you must call on him two or three times before you close the deal. You must spend hours with him, and sometimes days. You will discuss politics, progress, business, clothes, family—everything except the automobile. You will drink his tea and scrupulously exchange all the courtesies with him.

"If you attempt to rush matters, he will think you are trying to perpetrate some sort of swindle; otherwise you would not be in such a hurry to get away. When at last you finally get around to the sale of the automobile it will be a comparatively easy matter, for your customer will have been silently making up his mind. Once his mind is made up, nothing can shake it. He puts his faith in the 'chop'—that is, the trademark. In the case of the automobile it is the nameplate on the radiator. This is true of every manufactured article. Once his faith has been established in that article, the nameplate is the symbol of all its excellences.

"Your mandarin purchaser is a loyal advertiser for you. It will not be a week before all his friends know all about his car. They will ask for a car with the same 'chop' as that on their friend's, and cannot be persuaded to look at any other. If the mandarin has bought a medium-priced car, and some one should come along and offer him the highest-priced car made, he cannot make a step of progress because his car does not show the preferred 'chop.'

"In Shanghai, a city of about a million population, there are to-day, I should say, about 800 automobiles. A survey of these automobiles shows that the Chinese prefer a medium-priced car; wheelbase from 114 to 118 inches. They want a large, roomy body—the roomier, the better, because they will fill the car with as many passengers as it can hold. They have a marked preference for golden brown finish. The roadster has also made a distinct hit, and I look to see a large number of roadsters sold in China in the next few years.

"There is not an automobile factory in China to-day, but I believe the day is not far distant when you will see factories in several of the large cities. Up to about a year ago French and German cars had a distinct lead in the market. The American agents, however, have been active, and the result shows a decided increase of American cars. I shall not be astonished if consular reports at no distant date show the American car in the lead.

"It will be necessary for me to establish in Shanghai a thoroughly equipped American service station, and probably to establish stations in other cities. Nine thousand miles from the factory, as I shall be, we cannot call up on the telephone for parts, with the expectation of getting them before lunch, as we do here. I shall take experts to Shanghai with me. They will superintend the work. The entire force under them will be Chinese, who are very apt in all lines of mechanics. I am not overstating it when I say that you could hand a carburetor or magneto to Chinese mechanics, and if you would give them time enough, they would turn out a duplicate, possibly better in some respects than the original. It would all be made by hand and would be an artistic piece of work."

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