The China auto show is a big deal in China, as the organizers like to remind you. Biggest show in Asia. One of the largest auto shows in the world. The superlatives tend to set your expectations for some serious car gawking when you plan on attending in Beijing, which I did this week.
What you discover, perhaps even more than China's fascination with cars, is why many of the nearly 1 million attendees pay $13 to get in: the models. No, not the kind with fenders. We're talking supermodels in dresses, evening gowns, short skirts, T-shirts, and the occasional tube top.
Sure, at the auto shows in Detroit or New York, you'll see plenty of models -- but they're usually hugging a Lamborghini or elevated on stage. In the Beijing auto show the models are, well ... everywhere -- standing next to countless Chinese cars throughout Beijing's massive new exhibition hall, not just the ones on stage. And their apparent willingness to stare into camera lenses encourages the mostly male attendees to take as many pictures as possible. Nearly every model is hounded from the moment the doors open at 9 a.m. until they close at 8 p.m.
Chinese media are in on the game: Sina.com posted a useful story about where the top Chinese models would be working, height and bust sizes, and experience at the show.
I made it to the last day of this year's show, which rotates annually between Shanghai and Beijing. Though I arrived a full nine days after the global auto press swept into Beijing for media day and five days after the event first opened to the public, tens of thousands of people were still flooding into the exhibits for Ford (F), Chevrolet (GM), and dozens of Chinese automakers.
经常往返于纽约和上海的美国模特达芙妮•希尔顿说：“人们太疯狂了。”她正在与一位名叫芭比的匈牙利模特喝咖啡。两人都表示参加凯迪拉克（Cadillac）的展出非常幸运，她们可以穿着优雅的礼服，登上大量的版面。然而想要拍照的参观者数量之多，还是令她们感到尴尬。 “情况跟欧洲完全不同。他们几乎要凑到你的脸上来，” 希尔顿说。“他们跟我说，不能在展厅内闲逛——因为不安全。”很明显，繁忙的时候，展厅内几乎水泄不通。
中国车展观众对模特的热衷早已不是什么新鲜事——一位中国超模就曾在车展上穿过这样的服装。而且，许多中国模特经纪公司都把车展视为一年中最重要的活动之一。齐坤（音译）是中国最著名的模特经纪公司之一新丝路模特经纪公司（New Silk Road）的经纪人。新丝路在今年的车展上有超过10位模特。她说：“车展对于任何一家模特经纪公司都非常重要，因为这是展示公司实力的一个绝佳平台。”她说，她们给模特的唯一指示就是，远离社交媒体，休息时间不要在展厅内闲逛——或许还是为了她们自身的安全。
"The crowds are crazy," says Daphni Hilton, an American model who splits her time between New York and Shanghai. She was taking a coffee break with a Hungarian model named Barbie. Both said they feel lucky to be working at Cadillac's exhibit where they wear elegant dresses with a lot of coverage. But the number of people seeking photos is still awkward. "It's totally different than Europe. They move right up to your face," said Hilton. "They told us we shouldn't wander the halls -- it's not safe." Apparently during the busy days, the hallways are almost impassable.
There are plenty of male models on the floor as well. I asked Nemo Nemanja Barovic, a male model from Serbia, how China's show is different from those in Europe. "Here they only take pictures of the models, not the cars," he said, laughing. He sounded more curious than bothered. Neutarios Kiruopoulos, a model from Greece who was still wearing a tailored grey suit on break, was genuinely puzzled with what people do with the photographs. "WeChat?" he guessed.
The excitement that follows models at China's auto show isn't exactly new -- one of the country's supermodels once wore this dress to the show. And many of China's modeling agencies consider the show a key event in the year. "It's important for any modeling agency because it's a very good platform to show your strength and power," said Qi Kun, an agent at New Silk Road modeling agency, one of China's better-known agencies, which had more than 10 models at this year's show. She said the only instructions they give models is to stay off social media and not to wander the halls during breaks -- again, probably for their own safety.
What's different is that this year's show comes after the Chinese government has made a big show of cracking down on excess. Sales of luxury watches and expensive liquor have plummeted; Sina.com, the Internet portal, was fined recently for hosting pornography; and police staged a big prostitution sting in the country's south earlier this year. The model worship seemed like it could be a next step.
Changes won't come for another year, at least. In the meantime, picture galleries of the auto show are now popping up across Chinese websites. Models are the main attraction.