Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hummer and Sickle

By Chip Tsao | published Jun 18, 2009

The Chinese eat everything on earth with four legs, except for tables and chairs. Now it’s everything with four wheels too. American automaker General Motor’s three-ton monster, the Hummer, has just fallen victim to Chinese appetites thanks to a financial world ruled by jungle laws. GM is in discussions to sell its Hummer brand to little-known Chinese car factory Sichuan Tengzhong in a desperate smash-and-grab bid for cash to fulfil their pledge to keep US jobs.

This arrangement suits the egos of the cash-rich, gluttonous Chinese, who have been feasting their eyes on everything of value in the world, from the delicious LV bags of Paris to the glittering iron ore of Brazil. Originally modeled on military vehicles, the Hummer has recently been scorned by the US for being oversized, fuel-guzzling and—believe it or not—ostentatious. As the Americans wake up to a new age of austerity, sales of the Rambo-style heavy machinery have fallen 40 percent in May compared to the previous year.

It is assumed that a vehicle of such dramatic tastes will appeal to China’s penchant for conspicuous consumption. That’s one thing. But also the Hummer looks like a huge buffalo. Even if it burns fuel at a rate of 15 miles per gallon on a good day, it is reminiscent to the Chinese driver of peasant-farming days plowing through paddy fields. It’s also a uniquely feel-good product that provides double the pleasure. The more we drive the Hummer, the more we will treasure our strategic friends such as Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Only with their nukes and courageous anti-American rhetoric can we assure a continuous oil supply that will keep us seated proudly atop our mini-tanks like a sunglasses-emblazoned Arnold Schwarzenegger roaming for wild tigers running through the mountains of Manchuria.

But with this sale we approach a problem. We adore large and dazzling things, but the downside is that they have to have a foreign name. Ferragamo, Chanel and Prada will always sound more prestigious than Luk Fook Jewelry. We shop for products with names like Giordano or Lorenzo, brands with fake Italian-sounding names that help delude us into believing that perhaps Sophia Loren once slept with Donald Tsang like Marilyn Monroe with JFK. But if the Hummer’s new Chinese masters keep the original name, few would recognize it as the gaudy trophy claimed from American Imperialism that it is. Yet to call it the Tengzhong Hummer, for example, makes it sound like a movie starring David Carradine as a Shaolin kung-fu monk. Sure it still seems exotic, but it’s not something you would want to pay $100 to see in a digital cinema these days.

If the New York Times were to be bought by Lai Chang-xing, the Chinese billionaire living in exile in Vancouver, it would then carry little more credibility than if the South China Morning Post were to be purchased by a nephew of Idi Amin. This is a prejudice long hammered into consumer consciousness that will continue to persist, even despite a marriage of convenience between Hummer and sickle.

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