Suzhou Auto Show

February/March, 2003


    I spent part of February and March on the back side of the globe -- thus giving my immune system a real workout. It wasn't until I came home from China that I discovered that various people were folding up with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-- or Sayonara After Rapid Sickness).  I did experience flu-like symptoms (for about an hour and a half ) when I was in Suzhou -- but that may have had more to do with the Chinese brandy that I drank at a business celebration than with any airborne malady. My collegues and I dined in a small restaurant in a small village out by lake Tai Hu, a restaurant that happened to run out of wine for ceremonial toasting. The waiter substituted the brandy (58% alcohol) and did not tell me- so I got ceremonially toasted. (I didn't understand the Mandarin words for, 'We are all out of white wine, would you like to drink some industrial-grade metal degreaser instead?) After three ounces of the stuff my tongue went numb and my teeth felt soft. Any viral or bacterial infection residing inside my body would have been killed instantly.

    On the hour long trip back to my hotel, the booze was definitely a factor to be reckoned with. The back road we were on had a sign on it that read, (loosely translated)  "Large gaping holes in the road ahead that are so deep that if you are unfortunate enough to drive into one of them- your bodies will not be discovered by archeologists until long after China has a new name." It seemed as though we were driving over evenly spaced railroad ties and around whirlpools in the dark.  I asked our driver, "Are you sure you're not lost? It's too dark out here to tell." That broke everybody up.  One final word about inadvertently intoxicating yourself with Chinese brandy\paint remover\accelerant- the last place that you would like to go when you are dizzy and disoriented is to travel in a brightly lit, mirrored on all sides elevator- with a bunch of people talking in rapid-fire Mandarin. 'Nuff said.

    As a hotel 'regular' (three week stays a few times a year) I get to experience some of the hotel services that 'overnighters' generally miss, such as the magic laundry and mystery room service. (The room service menu still has the words 'good luck' printed its cover. I don't know what that is about.)   I got some clothes back from the hotel laundry with amazing results. My formerly tan sweatshirt is now tinted greenish brown, is curled at its edges, and is half a size smaller. I think they cooked it. The fresh cleaned towels in my bathroom also have the slight aroma of bacon grease.  If my dinner tastes a little soapy-- that would be a pretty good indication that the hotel rotates their staff a little too quickly.
   Most of the hotel staff know me by name -- or at  least by sight as the strange American who eats dinner in his room and walks across the street to the supermarket to buy junk food and dress shirts. I had to buy clothes almost daily-- due to the incredible miniaturization work of the hotel laundry.    But the hotel staff is exceedingly polite, and seemingly unfazed by my appearance. The lobby personnel will greet me with a smile and a pleasant, "Good evenering, Mr. Marlonheny", regardless of whatever I am carrying or dragging in; be it three new shirts, four liters of soda pop, or two kites-- fully assembled. It might be interesting to try bringing in something a little more unorthodox for a luxury hotel-- like an automobile tire or a 50 kg bag of concrete mix. Then again they might send over a bellhop to assist me in dragging my bag of cement to the elevator. People in China are very accommodating.
  Some of the stores do draw a line as far as accommodations go. I saw a sign in one of the local supermarkets prohibiting the patrons from storing their poultry or pets in the free storage lockers located just inside the store. It might not be a hard and fast rule, because I believe that I might have heard some non-technologically based scratching type noises emanating from the vicinity of the locker area.
     I was taking a walk through downtown Suzhou and wandered into the computer software market. (Home of the 'Jolly Rogers' or A.S.P.'s --Asian Software Pirates) Normally, I am a stickler for purchasing only licensed software. I am a network administrator, and pirated software is a BIG NO for me.  The computer software and movie industries lose billions of dollars in revenue due to pirated CDROMs and DVDs. I was curious as to what was selling in the market, so I took a look at some DVDs. Well, in a moment of weakness I bought a pirated DVD for $1-- not for the DVD disc -- which I threw away, but for the official-looking sleeve that the disc came in. The movie was "Catch Me If You Can" starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo Di Caprio - and according to the sleeve the movie was directed by Brian De Palma and written by Oliver Stone. This should come as quite a shock to Barry Kemp and Steven Spielberg who produced and directed it, at least they did when I saw it in a theater back in the US.. (One of the producers of this film is a relative of my wife's family- which is why the movie caught my eye.)  The sleeve went on to say that the New York Post declared this movie as "one of the best all-star gangland dramas since the Outsiders." The English translation of the sleeve also gave an interesting synopsis of the movie.  It was described as a documentary about a female student at the University of California who is also a porn actress who set a world's record for having sex with the most number of men in a ten hour span (251 men- if the sleeve is accurate.) Catch Me if You Can has nothing to do whatsoever with ganglands or -excuse me- g*ngbangs, unless I missed those parts when I was buying popcorn or something.
Reason #455 for not buying pirated software- you don't know what you are buying.

 Another disc I purchased (legally by the way- I bought it from an internationally recognized retail store)  was a compact disc set of "relaxation music" which consisted of classical music recordings with 'sounds of nature' mixed into the background. It is a novel idea, and sounds like a winner-- IF the music and sounds are mixed together properly. In my case the audio engineer that put this thing together could have partly deaf because the sounds of nature are played too loudly in comparison to the classical music. The 'babbling brook' portion sounds more like Bach serenading the Johnstown flood.  Who wants to be lost in the woods at night with Chopin? (At least he's playing a 'nocturne'.) If it were me, I'd probably burn the piano to keep warm, and possibly signal a searching party.

  I missed the Chicago Auto Show this year, and it really depressed me. Here I was in China, on the other side of the earth, totally unable to do my nearly yearly pilgrimage to the Midwestern Mecca of mechanized motivation meeting at McCormick Place. I love to look at cars, especially if someone else is responsible for maintaining them. So there I was, walking down the street in Suzhou, watching the traffic in front of my hotel, most of which was decidedly non-motorized. (You just would not believe the way people get around on their bicycles. I saw guys carrying twelve foot planks lashed to their bikes, weaving in and out of the two wheel crowds. The looked like they were jousting!  I saw one guy pedaling furiously and leaning WAY over the side of his bike, trying to counter-balance the apartment sized refrigerator that was tied to the other side. Nobody gave the guy a second look as he pumped and strained to ride up an incline with this thing.
  On this particular day, I took a walk to the local department store to replace some shrunken trousers (see above) and after I ended up buying a suit ($40 including alterations),  I decided to walk back to the hotel. The local auto dealers had a big display in a parking lot, and since I missed the Chicago Auto Show, I figured why not take a look at some of the local product. So I wandered around the "Suzhou Auto Show", looking at Hyundais, 'Cherys', 'Brilliance Autos', Chinese Fords, VWs and 'Bluebirds' (the Chinese version of the Lexus).  I walked around and through the crowd looking at the cars, when I noticed a Chinese TV camera crew looking at.... me.  It was a little disconcerting -- trying to look over the locally made vehicles with the Asian Paparazzi shadowing me. Every time I turned around there was Suzhou Channel 5 focusing in from about ten feet away with a guy in a suit was holding a microphone and trying to look nonchalant. I played hide and seek for a while by the Lexus- Bluebirds, and even took out my camera and got some pictures of them filming me. The car salesmen must have thought I was some kind of American celebrity, because they would run up and hand me some sales literature (all in Chinese) and try to get me to sit in their cars. I would smile, look at whatever car the particular salesman was showing, then nod my head with approval. The sales rep would smile back. Again and again. I lost count of the cars after a while. Most of them looked pretty good, and pretty well built--  but there were a couple really cheap ones--  which for all I know may have wooden engines and bodies made of papier mache'.  But still I would smile, letting the people know that I appreciated their products. (I am a connoisseur of cheap transportation. The award for the crummiest car I have ever traveled any distance in was a Vauxhall that I rode in during a trip to England. I thought that the whole interior of the car -including the seats and dashboard-- was constructed entirely from masonite particle board.)
    After I looked at the Shanghai-made Buicks (--the Chinese Regal is a $40,000USD car that looks like a Buick on the outside- but more like a Jaguar on the inside), I started to leave. My public relations tank was running dry, and I was looking forward to going back to my hotel and refueling with a little Tsing Tao or some reasonably cheap alternative.    As I walked out of the show, the Buick rep chased me down. She was all out of breath and told me that the TV people were all excited and they wanted to interview me for the local Suzhou TV station. So I went back, and for five minutes I stood next to a new Shanghai Buick and told all of Suzhou that the auto show was interesting, and that the new Chinese cars were similar in most ways to American cars. I don't know if the station actually aired the silly video of me walking around the lot and stammering like an idiot to a news reporter who couldn't speak much English anyway.
   My biggest fear is that my face will now go up on Shanghai GM billboards all over China and I will be selling Buicks for the next two or three years. Arnold Schwartzenager's picture is all over the city- on posters advertising all manner of products.  He sells lots of stuff-- he just doesn't know it.

     I was also able to do one of my favorite activities on this trip--  I stepped out of my hotel on a beautiful Sunday to be greeted by a dazzling sun in the sky, puffy clouds and just the right kind of wind-- a light breeze from one general direction. I went  walking down the street in search of an open space while scanning the horizon for low flying objects. I got to the park to see the air filled with dozens of kites. There were so many colorful kites flying overhead that the park could have used an air traffic controller just to keep them apart. I watched paper and cloth kites in shapes and sizes I had never before seen dancing on the breeze- and children as young as 4 or 5 years old launching and piloting them with expertise. Box kites, bird kites, dragons and diamonds and saucers too. I bought a sailcloth bird kite with string and winder for about $2. It had five different colors and a tail that spun like a snake in the breeze. The wind was perfect. I just tossed the thing into the air and let out the string. In less than a minute the kite was about a hundred feet in the air.  The wind got a little tricky due to a nearby tall hill, but I had that thing aloft without an incident for nearly half an hour-- until the children in the park began to look like my two sons James and Peter-- who were back in the US. Then the air got a little chilly and I had to bring the kite down.  As I was leaving, I saw a pair of little girls who got their kite stuck in a tree. They were pulling and tugging on the string-- and several bystanders came over to help. As I came over, the string broke and the girls looked very sad. Their toy was up in a tree.  I looked at the kite in my hand, now folded up. Its perfect flying shape and bright colors didn't seem to suit me anymore.  Well-- maybe I'll find another one like it on my next trip.

Gotta go.. There is a kite wind somewhere...


Neil


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