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November 29, 2010

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Car club members rev their engines

PUT the key in the ignition, start the engine and zoom, you're off. Cars represent mobility and freedom, among other things, and are increasingly popular with young professionals in Shanghai.

The rise of the automobile - there were nearly 850,000 private cars in Shanghai as of last year - has also given rise to a new trend in the city - car clubs.

Young professionals are joining car clubs to meet new friends, learn about maintenance and go on organized outings. It is estimated that there are about 50 car clubs - usually members have the same model - in Shanghai, most of which are non-profit and have been founded by car lovers. They schedule regular events such as trips, karaoke, theater, board games and even charity work.

Li Lin, a 26-year-old who works in human resources, says she was bored at times with her tedious office life and limited social circle, when it occurred to her to start a car club. She says she founded the Our Suzuki Team car club with some friends on August 8.

To date more than 170 people have joined the club, most of whom are office workers in their 20s and 30s.

"The unexpected rapid growth in our membership shows young people in the city have the same dilemma in this fast-paced modern society: loneliness and few alternatives to spend their leisure time," Li says.

The club's online community provides a wide range of information covering automobiles, self-driving tours, photography, keeping pets and outdoor parenting activities. Its online group chat also serves as a "headquarters" to organize regular offline events.

"We do not seek to profit from these events," Li adds. "Our events are open to every car enthusiast, regardless of age, gender or background. Everyone usually pays separately when we go out as a group."

Over the past four months, the club has organized a variety of weekly or biweekly events such as strawberry and peach picking, camping, hairy crab tasting and a trip to Shanghai International Circuit, which hosts the annual Formula One Chinese Grand Prix.

Li says everyone has a great time on the club's first camping trip and spelling out OST (the abbreviation of the club's name) with dozens of crab shells.

As much fun as these events were, Li says there was an unforgettably romantic marriage proposal by one member.

The marriage proposal was made at tranquil Meritus Lake in Baoshan District. It was set to a magnificent backdrop of colorful balloons and 20 or so cars parked so that they spelled out "I Love You."

The club's members helped plan the proposal and it turned out to be a big success as the woman said "yes" without hesitation.

OST member Xia Lei says there is no pressure involved in the club and people can pick and choose the events they want to attend.

"But for cars, we wouldn't know each other, it's easy for us to get acquainted with each other as our friendship is built on a common interest," Xia says. "We have a lot of energy, expertise and sources to share. The way we get along is easy, comfortable and pure."

Another member, who asked to be identified as "Mcdonald," his online nickname, says the car club is not just for fun; it is also a good platform providing first-hand practical and useful information about do-it-yourself car modifications and interior decoration.

"Many of the members have taken part in group purchases for auto accessories to save money," the 20-something worker for an international logistics company says. "We also get a few gas-saving tips and auto repair manuals from some veteran drivers. We have become good friends. Whenever a friend in our club gets married, we will lend our cars for the wedding caravan."

Professor Gu Xiaoming, an expert in history and sociology from Fudan University, says car clubs are an extension of the interest group phenomenon which has lasted for more than 40 years all over the world.

"There are a lot of interest groups such as clubs for soccer fans, but the popularity of automobiles will give birth to more car clubs in China," Gu says. "Such clubs, supported by the Internet, can help people solve a lot of problems related to cars. It is a multi-win situation for members as they can make the best use of personal resources."

Robert Bao, an office worker in his 30s, frequently goes to soccer games and driving trips organized by Buick HRV car club and Peugeot 307 car club.

"What makes car clubs popular among the young people is its loosely organized structure, equality among all the members, pressure-free events and emphasis on individuality," Bao says.

However, there is one major problem for members of car clubs - parking.

"It is increasingly difficult for us to find car parking spaces in the city's downtown areas," Bao says. "When we plan a big gala event, the first thing taken into consideration is where to park dozens of cars. Additionally, a car club needs to add more post-event interactivity to strengthen the bond between members."

Zhang Jiaqi, one of the founding members of Honda Super Street Racing car club, says it is challenging, yet rewarding at the same time, when organizing several hundred members for various events.

"During the Expo, we even arranged for 100 of our cars to make up the Expo logo - our way of promoting the public fair," he says. "I know that some clubs make profits through advertisements, brand cooperation or sponsorships, but we just want to make our community a simple and pressure-free way to enjoy the pure pleasure of automobiles."


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