Photo Report: The cars of Guangzhou, Guangdong province – China

Soueast V5 Plus GuangzhouSoueast V5 Plus and Guangzhou Opera House.

* Click on any picture to enlarge *

After covering the highlights of the Guangzhou Auto Show, we are now going in the streets of one of the largest cities in China. Guangzhou is located in the Guangdong province in southern China, only 174 km (108 miles) north of Hong Kong. Guangdong is the most populated province in China and the only one to house more than 100 million inhabitants at 106.4m. However these are long-term residents only and it is estimated than an additional 100 million migrant workers currently live in the province temporarily to some degree. This region of the world is one of the most densely populated with Guangzhou (also known as Canton in the West) totalling 12 million inhabitants, its close neighbour Foshan counting 6 million, Shenzhen just half an hour south at 14 million and Hong Kong at 7 million!

Guangzhou Radio TowerGuangzhou marketCanton Tower, Guangzhou market.

Guangzhou is the country’s No. 1 business transport and trade hub, having mixed with foreign traders for centuries – and it shows. Shamian Island, an lush oasis in the middle of the bustling city, houses numerous 19th century houses built by the British and French as they were permitted to set up their warehouses here. Enning Road is a vertigo-inducing pedestrian avenue lined up with hundreds of clothing stores ranging from bargain basement to posh European brands. The spectacular Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid and inaugurated in 2010, is already ageing with its facade already challenged by the natural elements. The Canton Tower adds a futuristic edge to this fast-evolving city.

Hyundai Sonata MoInca Taxi Guangzhou 1Hyundai Sonata MoInca Taxi Guangzhou 2Hyundai Sonata MoInca taxis at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport

What about the cars in the street? The first shock when hitting the street once customs are cleared in Guangzhou Airport is the prevalence of old generation Hyundai Sonata taxis. Similarly to Beijing where taxi companies have encouraged Hyundai to keep producing the Elantra from three generations ago, in Guangzhou the 1998 Sonata, renamed Sonata MoInca, is enjoying an extended life as a new model – almost exclusively as a taxi.

Nissan Sylphy Guangzhou 4The locally-produced Nissan Sylphy is the most popular nameplate in Guangzhou and Guangdong.

The second striking element in the Guangzhou car park is the weakness all around of the Volkswagen brand. Completely flooding the north-east of the country I visited earlier this year, the German manufacturer gets noticed by its absence in Guangzhou. Instead, Japanese manufacturers are feasting on the market, with Nissan, Honda and Toyota all tremendously successful here.

Nissan Sylphy Guangzhou 1Nissan Sylphy in Guangzhou

In fact, according to data that published on BSCB, four of the five best-selling models in the Guangdong province in 2014 were Japanese. The #1 sold 16.000 more units in Guangdong than any other nameplate in any other single province last year, and it’s the Nissan Sylphy – produced locally in Guangzhou by the Dongfeng-Nissan joint-venture. I also noticed in Guangzhou the (discreet) appearance of the previous generation Sylphy still on the Nissan catalogue as the Sylphy Classic.

Honda CRider Guangzhou 2The Honda CRider is exceptionally successful in Guangzhou.

The second best-seller in the province is the Toyota Corolla – and I didn’t really need official figures to have guessed it, judging by the endless flow of new generation models streaming through town, along with its twin the Toyota Levin. More surprising is the third place of the Honda CRider, a total blockbuster hit in Guangzhou meaning it scores its only Top 5 province ranking in the entire country here.

Honda Odyssey GuangzhouHonda Odyssey in Shamian Island – Guangzhou.

In fact, a lot Japanese nameplates ranking high in the national sales charts but eerily absent from the northern Chinese streets I have visited so far such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are all to be reassuringly found here. Most Hondas are popular in Guangzhou: the Fit, Crosstour, Jade, City and Odyssey can be spotted in healthy amounts, and the twin crossovers XR-V and Vezel are instant smash hits in town. In the Toyota aisle, the Vios, Yaris-L and Corolla EX are also very frequent as is the Prado SUV.

Toyota Yaris L Guangzhou 1Toyota Yaris-L in Guangzhou

Ford Escort GuangzhouFord Escort and Focus in Guangzhou

The Ford Focus ranked 4th overall in 2014 but judging by the amount of new Escorts in Guangzhou streets it should be overtaken by its younger and smaller sibling this year. The Fiat Viaggio and Ottimo are selling dramatically better than their national rankings indicate – respectively #202 and #248 in October – simply because they are produced locally through the GAC-Fiat joint-venture. Subaru is also a lot more successful in Guangzhou that I have found it to be in all other parts of China I have visited so far, with the Outback in great shape here.

Fiat advertising GuangzhouFiat advertising in Guangzhou Metro.

Subaru Outback GuangzhouSubaru Outback in Guangzhou.

Venucia R30 GuangzhouVenucia R30 in Guangzhou

Lastly and before we turn to Chinese carmakers, Venucia – a low-cost brand stemming out of the Dongfeng-Nissan joint-venture – is doing great business in Guangzhou with numerous T70 SUV spotted, the R50 hatch is surpisingly a lot more successful than the D50 sedan and the R30 is often proudly sporting its tiny Nissan March-inspired bonnet.

Wuling Mini Truck Guangzhou 2Wuling Mini Truck in Xilang

Wuling Rongguang Journey GuangzhouOld and new: Wuling Rongguang and Journey in Guangzhou.

Wuling Hongguang V GuangzhouWuling Hongguang V

On to the Chinese. The Chinese-to-foreign ratio varies wildly depending on the area of town studied, but never do Chinese manufacturers hold more than one-third of the car park. Their ratio goes from less than 10% in Zhujiang New Town to 17% in neighbour city Foshan, 25% near Shamian Island and almost 30% in the commercial part of town in Xilang. Given Guangzhou’s central trade and business role in the country, it’s not surprising that the large majority of Chinese fare on the streets are still Wuling, Chana and Dongfeng microvans. On top of the bruised and battered Rongguang, Sunshine and Hongguang vans, I spotted a dozen new Hongguang V, a handful of Journey MPVs and the ubiquitous Mini Truck in market areas.

GAC Trumpchi GS4 Guangzhou 1GAC Trumpchi GS4 in Guangzhou

The two local Chinese manufacturers are also logically making themselves noticed. The GAC Group is injecting a healthy flow of Trumpchi GS4 SUVs in the Guangzhou traffic, with the older GS5 also doing well, while BYD sports the G5 and Qin sedans, S6 and S7 SUVs and M6 MPV in large numbers but, surprisingly, very few F3 sedans. Haval is here in force: I spotted a dozen new generation H6 including the shortened H6 Coupe.

Geely GC9 Vision GuangzhouGeely GC9 and Vision in Guangzhou

There are traces of a once-upon-a-time Brilliance domination in the Guangzhou park, yet it seems to have gone for good looking at the small amount of shiny new models, with only one V3 SUV spotted. Baojun justifies its astounding success in the national rankings by showcasing numerous 730 MPVs and 560 SUVs in Guangzhou streets. Two brand-new Geely GC9 also made their appearance before my eyes, as impressive in real life as they are in Auto Shows.

Wuling Hongguang FoshanWuling Hongguang in Foshan

A thirty minute ride on the Guangzhou Metro takes you to neighbour city Foshan, and already the car park is slightly different: coming out of the big metropolis that Guangzhou is, the Wuling Hongguang reclaims its stranglehold on the new car market in Foshan while the Nissan Tiida seemingly shoots up to #1 passenger car…

Nissan Tiida FoshanNissan Tiida in Foshan

That’s all for the Guangzhou car park, I hope you have enjoyed exploring this town through these lines as much as I have over the past week. Next Chinese stop is Beijing for Auto China 2016 in April, so stay tuned!

China 2015 Photo Reports: The cars of Mohe, Heilongjiang province

1. Dongfeng dealership MoheDongfeng dealership in Mohe

After Harbin, we head North to Mohe, still in the Heilongjiang province. This is the northernmost city in the whole of China, completely rebuilt in 1985 after a devastating fire in striking Russian imperial-era style with colourful facades, spired domes and pillared entrances. A further 60km north via a deserted highway is Beijicun (literally “Arctic Village”), the northernmost settlement in China on the Amur River, the border with Russia.

1a. China map with MoheMohe is the northernmost city in China.

In fact, on a couple of view points in Beijicun you can clearly see a Russian settlement on the other bank of the river. Even though it was the last day of April when I visited, the river was carrying a large amount of ice blocks thawing their way towards the Japan Sea. As you can see on the map above, in Mohe we are further north than any point in Mongolia and around the same latitude as the north of Lake Baikal, two regions I reported on in a previous Trans-Siberian series. You can see the Russian part of the Trans-Siberies Photo Series here and the Mongol part here.

1b. MoheMohe main street

Logically, the Mohe County is where the lowest temperature was ever recorded in China at a scary −52°C (−62°F) in February 1969. This location single-handedly places China as the 5th coldest country in the world after Russia (−68°C/−90°F), Canada, the USA and Austria. To finish on the trivia, let it be known that the all-time lowest temperature ever recorded on earth (by satellite) stands at a terrifying −93°C/−136°F hit in Antarctica in August 2010.

2. Toyota Vios taxi MoheToyota Vios taxi in Mohe

Mohe’s average temperatures stay below freezing for 7 months of the year, and the frost-free period just short of 90 days places it only a little south of the line of continuous permafrost. By now you are all wondering: did I freeze here? Nope. Two days before I arrived it snowed, and it did again the day after I left but temperatures graciously stayed above 0°C during my entire stay in Mohe, despite a vicious hail storm I got caught under on my first day…

4. Dongfeng Fengguang 330Dongfeng Fengguang 330 in Mohe

Mohe marks the most ‘adventurous’ location I have visited during this exploration of North-eastern China. Stepping out of the only plane in the airport 1967-style straight onto the tarmac, handling terse female taxi drivers (1/3 of taxi drivers are female in Mohe) refusing to take me on unless I paid double the usual amount for the airport-city centre ride, hopping on one free taxi standing alone outside the airport only to have my driver be chased by *the police* for cutting the queue. Not being able to stay in the one hotel recommended by Lonely Planet because I’m a foreigner, discovering that the Golden Horse Palace (literally a palace but charging only $40 a night) isn’t able to accept my MasterCard.

Hyundai Mistra MoheHyundai Mistra in Mohe

Having the China Post Bank almost swallow my credit card as a souvenir and thanking the good old Agricultural Bank of China for graciously spitting out much needed cash allowing me to stay in town just as I was making plans to jump back on the plane I arrived in. In Mohe more than anywhere else, I was the attraction in town being the only foreigner thousands of kilometres around, feeling like a hollywood movie star every time I stepped out. No one speaks English here, but everyone under 25 has a Samsung Galaxy smartphone (all the rage in this part of the world) with a Chinese-English translator that they excitedly hold up to me so we can communicate, each of us with a big smile. This is why I love China.

3. Wuling Rongguang Pickup MoheWuling Rongguang Pickup in Mohe

Now that we’ve set the scene, what is the car landscape like in Mohe? Firstly, given we are at the lowest city tier level (County) and as it was the case last year in Kashgar and around all the way to Xinjiang Uyghur in Western China, Chinese manufacturers edge past foreign ones to take the lead and represent roughly 60% of the parc. Although there are quite a few battered FAW Xiali around, the auto parc is remarkably young for such a remote location, and a lot of the latest sales stars are already in town, such as the Haval H6 Sport (a few of them), H1 and H2, Baojun 730 and Peugeot 2008.

5. Haval H1Haval H1 in Mohe

At 5 yuan the ride anywhere in town (US$ 0.80!), taxis are a well-used means of transportation and they swarm the few streets of Mohe. Given it is such a small town, it is easy to recognise the taxi drivers that you have used and wave them down for further rides if they’ve been friendly – which is what I did for my trip to Beijicun as I will detail later on. Unlike all cities I visited so far this year, there is not a standard taxi nameplate here, with a flurry of models being used such as the Toyota Vios, Hyundai Verna, FAW Xiali N3, BYD F3, Shanghai Englon SC7 or Chery E5.

7. Wuling Hongguang BeijicunWuling Hongguang in Beijicun

There are a couple of car dealerships in town: one for Dongfeng proudly displaying the latest generation Rich pickup launched last December (first on the left in the opening picture of this article) and one for JAC which hasn’t exactly been met with extraordinary success so far, judging by the low number of JAC models in town. Dongfeng on the contrary has already made a mark, with a reasonable amount of previous gen Rich pickups in the streets as well as the V27L van and its double cabin pickup variant.

13. Mohe Gulian AirportMohe-Gulian airport, opened in 2008.

6. Haval H6Haval H6 Sport in Mohe

The Wuling Mini Truck aka Rongguang Pickup is by far the most popular new nameplate in town, it is not rare to spot 4 of them parked behind one another during the daily morning market. The transition from traditional microvans to double cabin mini pickups is a trend I detailed in the China LCV April 2015 update. Other popular nameplates in town include the Haval H6 Sport, Wuling Hongguang, Baojun 730, Toyota Vios, Hyundai Verna, Elantra Yuedong and the latest generation FAW Xiali N3 – justifying its survival in FAW’s lineup. Volkswagen has managed to establish a solid presence in the County, with the Bora, Jetta, Sagitar and Santana the most popular in this order.

8. BAW YongshiBAW Yongshi in Mohe

In line with the part of the world we find ourselves in, there are a few signs of ‘steppe customer tastes’ (choices that would be typical in neighbouring Russia and Mongolia) in the form of a couple of badass BAW Yongshi trucks, one of them pictured above. Pickup trucks also point their bonnet in town, including the now mandatory Toyota Tundra, the ZX Auto Grand Tiger, Great Wall Steed and a few Chevrolet Colorado-cloned JAC pickups.

9. FAW Xiali Tianjin N3 taxi MoheLast generation FAW Xiali N3 taxi in Mohe

10. Amour River BeijicunAmur/Heilongjiang river in Beijicun

Taxi driver Guo Myang having been particularly helpful on my confused ride from the no-foreigner hotel to the Golden Horse Palace, I waved him down the next day for the 70km ride north to Beijicun. Heavily militarised, this seems to be a pretty sensitive area with a Russian mirador built across the river from the touristic northernmost point you can walk to in China – I won’t publish any photos of this location for security reasons. A rather fascinating spot nevertheless, with no roads to Russia – the only option to cross the border being private motorboats, none of them were afloat at the time I visited, potentially because of the big ice chunks travelling at speed on the river as Spring was slowly transforming into Summer.

11. Russian village BeijicunRussian village across the river from Beijicun

Clearly visible from one of the Beijicun viewpoint where one military officer complimented me about my beard (what the?) is one Russian settlement pictured above. I tried to spot a few Ladas without success… In Beijicun itself, a few of the latest faves of the Chinese market are represented, namely three Wuling Hongguang, two Haval H6 Sport, two Nissan Qashqai, one Baojun 730, one Zotye T600, one VW Sagitar, one VW Lavida police car, one Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5 and one Huanghai Plutus pickup.

Haval H6 Mohe 2Haval H6 Sport in Mohe

12. Mohe street sceneMohe street scene

This concludes my Photo Reports about this part of China. A few Strategy articles will follow as this trip as enabled me to improve my understanding of the trends at play in the Chinese market and the subtle differences between cities. Stay tuned for more detailed insights!

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China 2015 Photo Reports: The cars of Harbin, Heilongjiang province

1. VW Jetta HarbinVW Jetta taxi in Harbin

After Mudanjiang, we are staying in the Heilongjiang province to travel to its capital, Harbin, the 8th most populous Chinese city and the most populous in Northeast China, home to a total of 10.6 million inhabitants as a sub-provincial city. The uniqueness of Harbin comes from its Russian heritage. Refugees from the Russian socialist revolution in 1918 made Harbin the largest Russian enclave outside the Soviet Union. The Russian Harbin community peaked at 120.000 people in the early 1920s, accounting for well over half of the city’s population back then. As a result, a large part of the old town houses Russian-influenced buildings including the St-Sofia Orthodox cathedral. Harbin’s main street, pedestrian, is packed every night including during the week with locals enjoying their growing spending power and street food stands offering scorpios and centipedes among other delicacies. A happily bustling city with a heart and a story to tell made it one of the highlights of this Northeastern China exploration.

2. ChangAn Eado Taxi HarbinChangAn Eado taxi in Harbin

After spending almost a week in mid-sized cities (read one million inhabitants) and even after going through Changchun which is a booming, oversized big country town, the contrast with Harbin is blatant. Traffic jams! Taxis with a smartphone on their dashboard! It costs 126 yuan to get to the airport whereas I never paid more than 40 yuan outside of Shanghai! Starbucks coffees are back! Harbin is in another category altogether, an already cosmopolitan city with its sights firmly set to the world. It would also end up being the only city outside of Shanghai where I spotted fellow Westerners – although I could count them on the fingers of one hand.

China 2015 map with Harbin

As with every location I explored so far, Harbin has a unique car landscape impacted by its geographical location, wealth, and the manufacturer(s) present in the region. Being the most developed and outward-looking city outside of Shanghai and Beijing I have visited so far, the Harbin car landscape is logically skewed towards foreign brands, accounting for at least 80% of the parc. Volkswagen, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota are the most popular. Let’s start with the composition of taxis, making up for a large part of the Harbin traffic. The VW Jetta dominates head(s) and shoulders, with the König-Pionier generations (1997-2013) representing around 60% of all taxis in circulation in town, and the Night model (2013-) at roughly 20% and growing. The Hyundai Elantra is at 10%, the VW Santana Vista at 7% and the rest includes the Soueast V3, V5, BYD F3 ChangAn Eado.

3. JAC Refine S3 HarbinJAC Refine S3

When looking into the Harbin private car landscape, it becomes quickly very clear that all the national superstars of the past couple of years have already had a good run here. If the Shanghai and Beijing car landscapes are in no way representative of the national sales ranking, Harbin is potentially the city where I could tick the most boxes and get reassured that the monthly sales data was at least partially justified. It is because of car-hungry cities like Harbin that the Chinese national sales charts look the way they do currently.

5. Hyundai ix25 HarbinHyundai ix25 in Harbin

Despite is wealth and size, Harbin is home to many Wuling Hongguang, challenging my assumption that this model had built its #1 ranking solely on the back of countryside success, the Baojun 730 is already well represented, as are the Ford Escort, Haval H1, JAC Refine S3, Ford Ecosport, Zotye T600, Honda Vezel and XR-V, Peugeot 2008 and Hyundai ix25. I also spotted my first Dongfeng Fangshan AX7, GAC Trumpchi GA3 and Qoros 3 SUV of the trip, the Great Wall Voleex C50 with a facelifted front aligning its design with the Haval lineup, and a handful of ChangAn V3 sedans.

4. Ford Escort Hafei Saima HarbinFord Escort and Hafei Saima in Harbin

Harbin is the home of Chinese manufacturer Hafei, but as opposed to Changchun where locally-produced FAW models were at every street corner, here the Hafei influence, although present, is much more muted. This is because state-owned Hafei is struggling. Acquired in 2009 by ChangAn, it only uses 10% of its production capacity of 400,000 vehicles a year. A long-term sales success is the Hafei Saima, a license-built Mitsubishi Dingo launched in 2001 that has received a couple of facelifts since but kept its body shape. All three generations of the model can be seen regularly in Harbin but it should not rank higher than 20th overall. A reasonable amount of various Hafei minivans also roam the streets, including a few Hafei Minyi Police minivans as pictured at the very end of this Photo Report.

9. Audi A4L HarbinAudi A4L – Harbin’s rich, bitch!

11. VW Magotan Jetta HarbinVW Magotan in Harbin

Another distinctive trait of the car parc in Harbin is the unusual frequency of – really – expensive nameplates. It’s one thing to see many Audi A6 in wealthy Shanghai, it’s another to witness a continuous flow of BMW 5 Series and VW Magotan in the centre of Harbin. The 5 Series is especially frequent which is very surprising given Volkswagen’s traditional stranglehold on this segment in China and on the Harbin market as a whole. The Audi A8L and BMW 7 Series are not rare either here, which completes the particularly visible display of wealth in Harbin. Mercedes, on the contrary, isn’t as strong here. Finally, I spotted one shiny FAW Hongqi H7 swooshing past my overheating Jetta taxi on the way to the airport.

6. Huanghai Plutus Luxury HarbinHuanghai Plutus Luxury

Even though Harbin is the most developed city I visited so far in China after Shanghai and Beijing, pickup trucks still seem to be allowed in town (many large Chinese cities forbid the entrance of pickup trucks within their walls). And it was the opportunity to spot the more obscure representants of this segment, such as the Huanghai Plutus Luxury, a shining new bright blue Kawei K10, and an unknown new pickup showcased in the ChangHe dealership spotted on the way to the airport. The Harbin police has received a new batch of brand-new BAW BJ40 Jeeps, and the highway to the airport is lined up with dealerships of almost all manufacturers present in the country, including no less than 3 Wuling dealers pushing the new Hongguang V minivan and large Journey MPV, 3 Dongfeng stores displaying a large amount of 330/360 and larger MPV and one huge Lexus dealer that seems to still be playing catchup based on the low amount of Lexus I spotted in the streets.

7. VW Jetta taxi HarbinVW Jetta taxis in Harbin

The stranglehold Volkswagen maintains over the taxi market (roughly 9 out of 10 taxis in circulation in Harbin are Volkswagens) transpires onto the private car parc, with Volkswagen by far the most successful brand in town. The VW Jetta Night should be the overall best-seller here, with the Bora, Sagitar, Magotan and Santana also popular in this order. It also seemed to me that the Gran Lavida was more successful than the Lavida sedan here, which if it is in fact true, would be the first city I visited to display this pattern.

8. VW Santana HarbinVW Santana (notice the Russian subtext)

One discovery I made in Harbin is the fact that the previous generation Jetta (named Pionier) seems to still be in production and selling as I spotted a couple of spanking new specimens not even registered yet (no license plate) in the centre of town. A final note on the Harbin Volkswagen parc is the indifferent success of both the FAW- and Shanghai-Volkswagen joint-ventures, interesting as we are clearly closer to the FAW fief (Changchun) than we are to Shanghai. The Jetta, Bora, Sagitar and Magotan are manufactured by FAW-VW, whereas the Lavida, Gran Lavida, Santana and Passat as well as the entire Skoda range are manufactured by Shanghai-VW, and Skoda is at its strongest in Harbin, well above any other Chinese city I visited so far.

Hyundai ix35 HarbinHyundai ix35

As we travel further North, the consumer’s taste logically grows more and more similar to neighbouring Russia, and this hasn’t been as true as in Harbin. What I called the ‘steppe’ trends during my previous trips to Western China and Mongolia are back with a vengeance in Harbin, namely a fondness for mid- and large SUVs coming from Japan and Korea. The Hyundai ix35 leads them all, with its facelifted front only available in China and South Korea, with the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Qashqai and Kia Sportage also very popular in Harbin. One namplate I have noticed a lot more frequently than before during this trip is the Toyota Prado, including the latest generation on sale for the past 18 months.

This concludes the exploration of the cars of Harbin, next we are travelling to the northernmost point in China. Stay tuned!

10. Citroen C-Elysee Chery E5 HarbinCitroen C-Elysée and Chery E5

12. VW Jetta Konig Harbin 2VW Jetta König in front of the St-Sofia Orthodox cathedral in Harbin

Infiniti HarbinHarbin street scene

Dongfeng Fengshan AX7 HarbinDongfeng Fengshan AX7

VW Santana Nissan Tiida HarbinVW Santana and Nissan Tiida in Harbin

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China – 2015 Photo Reports incl. Auto Shanghai

4. ZX Auto Grand Tiger FAW V5 taxi MudanjiangZX Auto Grand Tiger and FAW V5 taxi in Mudanjiang

This is the portal to all China 2015 Photo Reports, you can click on any link to access the Photo Report.

The cars of Shanghai

The cars of Changchun, Jilin province

The cars of Yanji, Korean autonomous prefecture

The cars of Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang province

The cars of Harbin, Heilongjiang province

The cars of Mohe, Heilongjiang province

Auto Shanghai 2015 Photo Reports:

Auto Shanghai 2015: The highlights

Auto Shanghai 2015: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (1/5)

Auto Shanghai 2015: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (2/5)

Auto Shanghai 2015: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (3/5)

Auto Shanghai 2015: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (4/5)

Auto Shanghai 2015: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (5/5)

Auto Shanghai 2015: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (Summary)

China April 2015: The cars of Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang province

1. Suzuki Lingyang taxi MudanjiangSuzuki Lingyang taxi in Mudanjiang

After Yanji in the Korean Autonomous Prefecture, we are now leaving the Jilin province, headed north to cross over to Mudanjiang in the Heilongjiang province, home to just under 1 million inhabitants. Mudanjiang does have an airport but it doesn’t have direct flights to either Yanji or Harbin so it’s bus all the way for me to join these 3 cities, and it’s a good opportunity to check out the car landscape in the hilly countryside between Yanji and Mudanjiang.

2. Hyundai ix25 MudanjiangThe Hyundai ix25 is already one of the best-selling models in Mudanjiang.

In actual fact, it’s a pretty bare landscape as there are not many private motorised vehicles in the area, let alone new ones. Of note are a handful of Chery QQ3 sedans, Suzuki Lingyang, Chery Cowin 2 and the ubiquitous Chana and Hafei minivans. Definitely a huge potential for growth here. Fun: tri-wheelers seem to be the taxi of choice in Dongjing halfway between Yanji and Mudanjiang.

China map with Mudanjiang

The Russian influence is logically getting stronger and stronger as we get further north and away from Beijing: relaxed and modern Mudanjiang reminds me a lot of Moscow in the way the streets are laid out: massive 2 x 4 lanes with large parking spaces on each side, not much vegetation and near-skyscraper housing sprouting up. It could be depressing, but strangely, staying in Mudanjiang ended up being an exhilarating experience: I really felt like I was setting foot where almost no other Westerner had before: I haven’t spotted any since I left Shanghai. Smiles everywhere, an obsession with making sure my seat-belt was buckled up either in the bus or in taxis (unheard of in China), and people in the street watching my every move, stunned, amused and curious – not wary at all.

3. Haval H2 MudanjiangHaval H2

The first obvious sight when arriving in Mudanjiang is the taxis, like in many other Chinese cities still coming to grips with private car ownership. And cheap they are: you’d be hard pressed paying more than 10 yuan (US$ 1.60) for any ride around town, whether you’re on your own or you bring your entire family. As a Mudanjiang local, it would surely make you think twice before sinking your hard-earned cash in a new car, even a Chana micro pickup worth around 30,000 yuan (US$4.800). This is the context in which domestic carmakers evolve in China: competing with taxis that cost nothing. Taxis in Mudanjiang are a unique mix of Suzuki Lingyang (reminiscent of Hotan in Xinjiang Uyghur), FAW V5, Kia Rio and Hyundai Elantra in order of popularity.

4. ZX Auto Grand Tiger FAW V5 taxi MudanjiangZX Auto Grand Tiger and FAW V5 taxi in Mudanjiang

So what do the friendly people of Mudanjiang drive? The Mudanjiang car landscape is also unique and once again distinctly different from the one in Yanji or even Changchun. If the Chinse car ratio is roughly the same (1/3) it is achieved mainly by older models and I would expect Chinese carmakers to hold a very small market share in 2015, not more than 15-20%. Even though Mudanjiang is roughly twice the size of Yanji, the parc is older and includes more microvans (10-15% of the traffic) and pickups (8%) with a large variety of brands including the ZX Auto Grand Tiger becoming a lot more popular, Huanghai, Gonow and old Great Wall Steeds. This seems to indicate the Mudanjiang market is a little less developed/wealthy than Yanji.

5. Great Wall Steed VW Jetta MudanjiangGreat Wall Steed and VW Jetta

Another observation confirming this status although it is counter-intuitive is the much higher proportion of larger, foreign SUVs: Lexus LX, Toyota Prado, Highlander, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe and the first Lincoln MKX and Navigator of this trip. On the contrary, domestic SUVs apart from the FAW Besturn X80 and a few ChangAn CS35 are almost absent whereas their foreign counterparts like the Hyundai ix25, Honda Vezel/XR-V (all 3 already frequent!), Kia KX3 (the first in this trip) and Buick Encore are being snapped up en masse.

6. Huanghai Great Wall Wingle MudanjiangHuanghai and Great Wall pickups

Why is this an indication that Mudanjiang has a less mature car market? Simply because only wealthier drivers will purchase larger and/or more expensive SUVs and the less-to-do drivers haven’t bought into the Chinese SUV craze just yet, remaining in a ‘sedan’ mentality for now. It’s only a question of taste because small Chinese SUVs and affordable foreign small and compact sedans are priced similarly as we’ll see just below.

7. Hyundai Verna MudanjiangHyundai Verna and Honda Crider

In this context, the new cars that stand out in the Mudanjiang landscape, apart from the Hyundai ix25 that could seriously pretend to an overall Top 10 ranking, are the previous generations of nameplates still on sale in China, namely the Toyota Corolla EX and Hyundai Elantra Yuedong, and foreign affordable models like the Hyundai Verna, Toyota Vios and Nissan Tiida. To give you some perspective the Hyundai ix25 starts at 119.000 yuan and the Buick Encore at 149.900, while the Toyota Vios starts at 69.800 yuan, the Hyundai Verna at 73.900 and the Corolla EX at 90.800.

8. Toyota Corolla EX MudanjiangToyota Corolla EX

At these prices, buyers would be able to afford a JAC Refine S3 (65.800 yuan), Zotye T600 (79.800) or Haima S5 (89.800), yet they don’t. The only domestic SUV to be successful to-date in Mudanjiang is the FAW Besturn X80 which starts at 119.800 yuan, the same price as a Hyundai ix25. That’s a different category of buyers altogether. So to summarise: wealthy buyers buy SUVs, poorer buyers buy sedans. In this the Mudanjiang market is late compared to where China is nationally (the while market is upsizing to SUV), and is closer in purchase patterns to Russia – which makes sense given Russia is less than 100km away.

9. Mudanjiang street scene 4Mudanjiang street scene

Volkswagen is at its weakest in any Chinese city I have vistited so far, and the only explanation I could find for this observation are a less dense dealership network and prices out of reach for most buyers. Saying that Mudanjiang car buyers completely disregard Volkswagen to opt for fellow Asian carmakers wouldn’t make much sense as it would make this city the only one so far in China to develop this taste.

10. Kia KX3 Buick Encore MudanjiangKia KX3 and Buick Encore

Let’s end on a last surprise: the national best-seller, the Wuling Hongguang, is proving very discreet in Mudanjiang: I only saw a handful of them, and the first Beijing Auto Weiwang M20 of this trip – one of its clones. Once again I will advance the explanation that Mudanjiang may be a few years late adopting national trends: small shop owners haven’t yet upsized from their microvan to the Hongguang and its equivalents.

11. Mudanjiang street scene 5Mudanjiang street scene

12. ZX Auto C3 Urban Ark MudanjiangZX Auto C3 Urban Ark

The next stop in this exploration of North-Eastern China is the capital of the Heilongjiang province: Harbin. Stay tuned…

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China April 2015: The cars of Yanji, Korean Autonomous Prefecture

1. Hyundai Elantra YanjiHyundai Elantra taxis in Yanji

After Changchun, we hop on a short 45 mins flight to Yanji, capital of the little-known Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, next to the North Korean border. Yanbian was created in 1955 as a reward for Koreans who fought on the side of the communists in the Civil War and is the only minority prefecture in the north of China. Many Koreans refer to it as the ‘third Korea’, after the South and North, given it’s around half the size of South Korea, however it’s home to just two million inhabitants, including roughly 400.000 in Yanji.

Chery QQ YanjiChery QQ in Yanji (notice the Russian sign)

It’s a fascinating and unexpected experience to see most street signs including shops, restaurants and hotels bilingual in Chinese and Korean (and even Russian sometimes!), newspapers in Korean and hearing Korean spoken instead of Chinese. As it has been the case for the Xinjiang province with the Uyghur population though, the percentage of ethnic Korean has fallen from 60% in the 1950s to 38% today.

China map with Yanji

2. Kia K3 YanjiKia K3 and Hyundai Mistra

Yanji is roughly the same size as Kashgar (Xinjiang Uyghur) that I visited last year, however it is a lot less isolated and a lot more urbanised and as a result, while the Kashgar car landscape was 100% countryside with many pickups and micro- and minivans, in Yanji it’s very different. Firstly, apart from taxis that account for a good 25% of cars in circulation in the centre of town and composed at 75% of 2000 Hyundai Elantra (still sold in China – the rest are VW Jetta König), it is not the Korean car tidal wave I had expected. The Kia K3, Sportage R, Hyundai ix35 and Mistra are present in good numbers, but not much more than expected given their respective national rankings. The Kia Sorento may have had its sales inflated by the proximity of Korea, but that would be about it.

VW Jetta Chery QQ YanjiChery QQ and VW Jetta under a Korean-style arch in Yanji,

Chinese manufacturers represent roughly 1/3 of all cars in the centre of town (excluding taxis), a ratio that increases as we reach the outskirts of the city. In any case, a slight improvement over the 25-30% of Changchun, with the added specificity that if in Shanghai (Roewe) and Changchun (FAW), one local carmaker clearly dominated, here the landscape is a lot more varied, with most main domestic manufacturers fairly well represented.

Yanji Street scene 2Yanji street scene

The Yanji car parc is quite markedly older than in Changchun where it seemed that almost every private car in circulation had been bought in the past year. Sedans rule by far, but are skewed towards smaller sizes and more affordable brands, a logical trend as we step out of the big cities and revenue per inhabitant goes south. SUVs are frequent but it’s not a craze yet, and we remain at a very low pickup ratio in the traffic, dominated by the Dongfeng Oting, JMC and Great Wall Wingle.

4. Dongfeng V07S YanjiDongfeng V07S

Microvans however are back in force, but this time the brand spread is very high. It’s not just Wulings and Chanas like we saw in Chongqing last year: other lesser-known models have their time in the limelight here: the FAW V70 is at its most popular anywhere I’ve been in China so far, and I spotted generous amounts of Dongfeng V07S, Beijing Auto Weiwang 205, Karry Youyi and various Jinbei and Hafei models.

Wuling Hongguang Yanji2 x Wuling Hongguang in Yanji

Overall though, the Wuling Hongguang should top the sales charts in Yanji, with the Chana Honor also strong and the Karry K50 starting to show itself.

Chery E3 YanjiChery E3

Two brands are clearly noticeable much more often in Yanji than in other Chinese cities I have visited so far. The first one is domestic manufacturer Chery. I am willing to bet the 2013 Chery QQ ranks inside the Top 5 in Yanji, with the Tiggo3 inside the Top 10 and the Tiggo5 and E3 small sedan inside the Top 15. That’s a spectacular success for a brand that has been relatively discreet on the national stage for the past couple of years. The Fulwin 2 hatchback is also a very frequent sight.

Chery Tiggo5 YanjiChery Tiggo5 (notice the Korean characters above the Chinese ones)

Chery Fulwin 2 Kia Sportage YanjiChery Fulwin 2 and Kia Sportage R

But the most interesting element about Chery’s success in Yanji is that it seems to be relatively recent, as there is no significant heritage of previous generations QQ or Tiggo. If this is true, it would make for a very interesting insight as it shows a Chinese brand is reclaiming lost territory in the sedan and SUV segments with low-end models. Cities like Yanji are the reason why affordable sedans like the E3 are manufactured by Chinese manufacturers, even though their success nationally is relatively limited. These aren’t successful in the big cities but the smaller ones, and they are the ones where new car sales are growing the fastest.

Chery Cowin 2 and E3 YanjiChery Cowin 2 and E3

Citroen C-Quatre Hyundai Elantra YanjiCitroen C-Quatre and Hyundai Elantra taxi

The second brand that captured my attention by its unusual frequency – albeit at a much lower level than Chery – is Citroen, in particular with the C-Quatre hatchback and sedan very successful here. This is in contrast with Peugeot, almost inexistent bar one single 408 and a couple of 2008. Adequately, I saw the first DS 5LS of this trip in Yanji.

Nissan Sylphy YanjiNissan Sylphy

Although Citroen was stronger than expected, the most popular foreigner overall here seems to be Nissan, whose Sylphy is a blockbuster seller in Yanji, with the Tiida, Sunny, X-Trail and Teana also very strong in this order. Logical in a city keen on affordable sedans, the Toyota Vios is a hit in Yanji (as is the Yaris L), while in the Honda aisle, the XR-V and Vezel twins are already frequent, which is extremely impressive given they have been in market for just a couple of months. Volkswagen is still successful here but nowehere near as much as in Changchun. The Santana, Lavida and Jetta are the most popular. Ford’s Kuga is a winner and I already saw one Escort. Obviously, and this is becoming comical, we have our residents Toyota Tundra (two in fact) and Ford F-150 Raptor in Yanji…

Brilliance H330 YanjiBrilliance H330

Back to the Chinese: Apart from the QQ, Yanji consumers are avid buyers of all its minicar competitors: the BYD F0, JAC A10 or ChangAn Benben are all popular here. ChangAn does very well indeed in Yanji, with also a very strong heritage of CX20, the CS35 very well established and the CS75 becoming quite frequent already. Brilliance also made itself noticed with the V5 SUV (I spotted 3 in a matter of metres) and the H330 sedan. The FAW Besturn X80 is once again among the best-selling SUVs in Yanji – although a lot weaker than in Changchun. I spotted two BAW BJ40 and the first Leopaard Q6 of the trip (Facelifted Pajero), and half of all Police sedans are Haima Family – the other half being VW Jetta König.

BAW BJ40 YanjiBAW BJ40

Finally, there is a very solid heritage of Great Wall M4, C20R and C30. Now that these models are being phased out, it will be interesting to see where these specific consumers (mainly women from what I saw) report their next sales. The Haval H1 would come in first line, but the door is open for other domestic manufacturer to win the sale.

Jaguar XJ YanjiJaguar XJ in Yanji

Next we are going further north to Mudanjiang in the Heilongjiang province…

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China April 2015: The cars of Changchun, Jilin Province

1. Changchun street scene 5VW Jetta taxi in front of the Changchun Railway Station

From Shanghai we are now headed North, passing Beijing to land in Changchun, the capital city of the Jilin province. The city itself has 3.6 million inhabitants, but including the greater Changchun, this figure climbs to 8 million, or almost as much as Paris or London! Yes you have read that right, there are cities in China that you may not have heard of but are larger than most European cities. Changchun was the Japanese capital of Manchuko between 1933 and 1945 and as such houses the former residence of Puyi, the Qing dynasty’s final emperor also known as the ‘puppet emperor’ and whose story was made into the 1987 movie The Last Emperor. Adequately, Changchun also used to be the capital of the Chinese film industry in the 50s and 60s.

2. China map with Changchun

Nowadays, Changchun is known as China’s Detroit as it is the largest vehicle manufacturing, research and development centre in China, producing roughly 10% of the country’s automobiles in 2014. First Automotive Works (FAW) has its headquarters here, along with its various joint-ventures with foreign manufacturers including FAW-Volkswagen and FAW-Toyota. This impacts the Changchun car landscape greatly as we will discover in a lot more detail below. Anecdotally, Changchun also produces 50% of all passenger trains in China.

3. FAW Besturn B50 taxi ChangchunFAW Besturn B50 taxi and BMW X1 in Changchun

Landing in Changchun means we have arrived in what I call ‘real China’: I did not see a single foreigner the entire time I stayed here (24 hours) and my very presence in the streets has everyone glued to their bus windows in curiosity, waving and smiling at me like they just spotted a movie star. Having around 50 bus patrons turn their head all in the same motion to keep staring while the bus drives on is a very interesting experience indeed. Must be the beard.

4. FAW Xenia S80 ChanchunFAW Xenia S80 at Changchun Longjia Airport

As soon as I step foot on the airport tarmac, the evidence this is FAW city awaits in the form of a FAW Xenia S80 minivan in its Changchun Longjia Airport livery. It is the start of a constant flow of FAW models streaming through Changchun, but they were not the ones I expected. The FAW Xiali sedan, a decade ago among the best-sellers nationwide – although not produced in Changchun but 850km South in Tianjin, is nowhere to be seen: I only spotted two lonely N5. It goes the same for the lower end of the FAW lineup: only a couple of Oley sedans and Xiali N7 hatchbacks and one Junpai D60.

5. FAW Besturn X80 ChangchunFAW Besturn X80

No. What Changchun drivers can’t get enough of are the more upmarket FAW offerings, nameply the Besturn sub-brand. The Besturn X80 SUV is absolutely everywhere: 2 or 3 of them at every block, no less, and while only ranking #91 nationally in 2014, in Changchun it is flirting with the pole position.

FAW Besturn B70 ChangchunFAW Besturn B70

Also very popular are both the Besturn B50 and B70, all generations of them (they both launched in 2006), with the 2014 B70 model already very present in the Changchun streets – I would safely bet on a Top 10 ranking here, even potentially Top 5.

FAW Besturn B50 Jinbei Haise ChangchunFAW Besturn B50 and Jinbei Haise

The first generation Besturn B50 also accounts for roughly 5% of all taxis in circulation here. Only the flagship B90 has yet to become a local favourite, potentially because of its 139,800 yuan pricetag (US$22,800). I did see one FAW Hongqi H7, the first time I see one of these out and about, and Hongqi has one H7 exhibited in the Departures hall of the Changchun Airport along with very sleek brochures.

8. FAW Hongqi H7 Changchun AirportFAW Hongqi H7 at Changchun Dongjia Airport

As such, FAW secures itself the lion’s share of domestic carmakers who account for roughly 25-30% of a car parc still largely dominated by sedans. SUVs are starting to be relatively popular but there is no heritage of any SUV buying pattern in the past, while minivans and microvans are relatively rare compared to cities like Chongqing, and pick-up trucks are non-existent.

Changchun street scene 1Changchun street scene

In Changchun we see the return of the Wuling Hongguang well established here but a long way from matching its #1 national ranking, as well as a sprinkling of the microvans that preceded it. I spotted the first two Wuling Hongguang V and the first four Baojun 730 MPVs in circulation, confirming the mesmerizing sales starts of these two nameplates are no legend but well and truly confirmed in the streets.

10. Haval H1 ChangchunHaval H1

Great Wall is relatively strong here – the first 3 Haval H1 made their appearance – and I learnt by stufying the Changchun traffic that the Haval H6 Sport in effect replaced the H6 over the past 18 months in terms of sales. That is before the new generation H6, unveiled at Auto Shanghai (more on this shortly), will take the relay. Also of note were the success of the Donfgeng X3 SUV and ChangAn CS75.

VW Jetta Changchun 2VW Jetta

That’s it for the Chinese, but what brands compose the remainder of the Changchun parc? One word: Volkswagen. Or two: VW Jetta. Being produced locally since 1991, the Jetta is logically the best-seller in Changchun whether it be with taxi companies or private buyers. I spotted hundreds of them in the streets in the space of only a few hours. The first generation Jetta (1991-1997) and its facelifts König (1997-2010) and Pionier (2010-2013) still accounts for around 75% of the Changchun taxi parc, with the current generation called Jetta Night (2013-) holding a 20% share and growing. Come back in a few years time and the new gen will be dominant.

12. Changchun street scene 2VW Jetta taxis in Changchun

In fact all mass-market Volkswagens produced in Changchun are popular here: the Sagitar follows the Jetta, ahead of the Bora, Magotan and Golf – Changchun being the first Chinese city where I spotted the European best-seller in significant numbers, including one station wagon.

Chery E3 ChangchunChery E3

Even though Toyota produces in Changchun, it’s Honda that could snap the title of most popular Japanese manufacturer here, with a regular flow of Crider, CR-V, City, Civic and Accord whereas in the Toyota camp only the Vios and to a lesser extent the Yaris L and RAV4 have made a real mark so far. Mazda also made a very strong and very recent impression, with the 3 Axela and 6 Atenza placing way above the respective #84 and #150 national March rankings. Korean-wise, the Hyundai Mistra and Kia Optima have also struck a chord with Changchun car buyers, and the ix25 is off to a great start.

Mercedes C Class Changchun

There is one car of choice for the wealthy: the Audi A6L, surprisingly frequent despite its price starting at a whopping 355,000 yuan (US$57,300). But it doesn’t stop here. Changchun wealth is clearly visible through the cars that roam its streets, including 3 Porsche Macan spotted in one hour, a handful of BMW X5 and X6 and new generation Mercedes C-Class and a dozen Audi Q3 and Q5, produced locally.

13. Changchun street scene 6Changchun street scene

Let’s finish on an American note: it would seem that each Chinese city has one resident Ford F-150 Raptor scaring its pedestrians (Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur had one last year) and Changchun is no exception, with the added surprise of one Toyota Tundra. Next stop is Yanji in the Yánbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture at the border with North Korea…

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China April 2015: The cars of Shanghai

1. Shanghai Pudong street scene 7Shanghai Pudong street scenes

After going through the highlights of Auto Shanghai 2015 and before I give you my ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers at the Show, it’s time to go wandering in the streets of Shanghai so I can share with you what the most popular cars are here. The Shanghai car landscape is surprisingly easy to read with a few main trends to be followed.

2. VW Santana taxi x3 ShanghaiVW Santana taxis in Shanghai French Concession

VW Santana taxi is king

The Shanghai-Volkswagen joint-venture has been spitting out Santanas for 3 decades, so it’s no surprise to see them litter every single street of Shanghai. The surprise is how many of them still roam around. The Santana taxi accounts for up to 50% of the entire traffic in the French concession part of town for example.

3. VW Lavida Taxi ShanghaiVW Lavida and Santana taxi in Pudong

Efforts to replace it with more modern Touran and Lavida, though relatively successful, have done nothing to limit this supremacy however. The Santana Vista 1998 model is everywhere and I did spot two very well preserved first generation private Santanas, but very few new generation Santana, and none as taxi.

4. Buick GL8 ShanghaiBuick GL8 in Shanghai Tianzifang

Too cool for taxi? Buick GL8 it is

If you think you’re way too cool to get moved around town in a vulgar taxi, then you’ll need to opt for the ubiquitous Buick GL8. Already very popular in Beijing, the GL8, most of all the current generation, is the way to get chauffeured around in Shanghai, if you can afford it. Go near the shopping districts of Tianzifang and Xintiandi and you’ll find lines after lines of Buick GL8 parked with their driver sleepily awaiting the end of the Prada and Louis Vuitton shopping spree.

5. Buick LaCrosse VW Santana taxi ShanghaiBuick LaCrosse and VW Santana in Shanghai Tianzifang

In fact, not only the GL8 but the entire Buick lineup is particularly strong in Shanghai, notably at the higher end of the scale: the LaCrosse is very frequent in the streets of the city especially in financial Pudong, and I have spotted a few Envision SUVs already.

6. Shanghai Pudong street scene 3Shanghai Pudong street scene

7. Roewe 550 VW Touran ShanghaiRoewe 550 in Shanghai Tianzifang

Locals? What locals?

Even more acutely than in Beijing where I estimated that Chinese carmakers amounted to around 10-15% of the traffic, Shanghai harbours a stinging self-hate for domestic manufacturers, who account for no more than 5-8% of the overall Shanghai car landscape. The only ones keeping their head out of the water logically belong to Shanghai-based SAIC Group. Roewe is by far the most popular local brand in Shanghai, with the 550 the favourite in the lineup by a large margin.

9. Maxus G10 ShanghaiMaxus G10

Maxus is strong in the commercial area with a dozen M80 as well as a handful of G10 spotted. MG follows, mainly thanks to the MG3. The only other nameplates to pop up more than once (!) are Jinbei and Foton Hiace-inspired vans and JAC light vans. I did spot one Qoros 3 in Pudong, and a couple of BYD Qin hybrids.

8. Shanghai street sceneShanghai street scene

Range Rover Evoque favourite import

A particular favourite in Shanghai is the Range Rover Evoque, imported here therefore highly expensive, but that hasn’t deterred a mini-craze towards this vehicle here. I saw a total of over 20 in just two days spent wandering the streets. I also noticed an inordinate amount of Fiat Viaggio and Ottimo and 3 Tesla Model S in two days: one near People’s Square, one in Pudong and one on the Bund where a Ford F-150 Raptor also caught my attention.

12. BYD Qin ShanghaiBYD Qin

If last year after the Beijing Auto Show I took you all the way to Western China on a trip to Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur and on the Karakoram Highway to the Pakistani border, this year we are headed North towards the North Korean and Russian borders. Next stop: Changchun, the “Detroit of China” in the Jilin province. Stay tuned!

11. Venucia Morning Wind Shanghai

10. Shanghai Pudong street scene 5Shanghai Pudong street scenes

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