As the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai prepares to celebrate 100 years in China as of June 2015, we take a look back to highlight some American products, people and companies that changed daily life in China, bridged cultural gaps, and paved the way for decades of American-Chinese trade.
On the streets of Shanghai today, and indeed throughout all of China, Buick is one of the most popular automobile brands. Its widespread presence is a symbol of the rising affluence of the country’s middle class. But did you know that the brand’s success is just the latest chapter of its long history in China? From the last emperor nearly a century ago to a postwar premier, Buick has long been the choice for China’s political and business leaders.
Buick’s history in China is long and distinguished – even longer than the 100 years of AmCham Shanghai. In 1906, two journalists attempted to set a U.S. transcontinental speed record in a Buick Model F to impress Yuan Shikai, then viceroy of a Chinese province, who was interested in introducing Buicks to China “if they come up to expectations.” While the record was not ultimately broken, the Buick did set a new speed record between New York and San Francisco.
It wouldn’t be long before Buick became General Motors’ de facto flagship brand in China–and the car of choice for the country’s influential citizens.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen, China’s first provisional president, took his first automobile ride in a 1912 Buick. In 1924, Pu Yi, the last emperor of China was sold a Buick four-door sedan and a Buick four-door limousine. They reportedly became the first cars ever owned by an emperor of China and the first cars to enter what had been the Forbidden City. Zhou Enlai, China’s beloved premier, kept a Buick at his home here in Shanghai.
Buick’s growing popularity in Shanghai led to the opening of its first sales office in this city in 1929, the same year that General Motors China originally opened for business, and seven years after GM moved its Manila branch to Shanghai.
In 1930, a Buick advertisement read: “According to very recent statistics of the Shanghai Municipal Council, it is stated that one out of every six cars is a Buick.” That same year, 20 prominent Chinese signed a testimonial: “The new Buick – welcomed by all the leading statesmen and prominent businessmen of China.”
Buick would leave China when the Communists took power in 1949, but it was far from forgotten. General Motors returned to China in 1997 to form Shanghai General Motors, a joint venture with SAIC Motor. On December 17, 1998, when the first vehicle rolled off the production line at Shanghai GM, it wore the Buick tri-shield logo. The company chose the Buick brand primarily because of its prestigious local heritage. With the introduction of an original family of Buick sedans at the joint venture, GM became the first global automaker to build a completely new product line in China.
Buick has also been responsible for several other industry firsts in China. It was the first brand to feature a locally produced automatic transmission. It pioneered China’s executive wagon segment with the seven-passenger GL8, and also the country’s affordable family car segment with the original Buick Sail.
Today, Buick products are manufactured at Shanghai GM facilities in Shanghai and Shenyang. In 2014, 919,582 Buicks were sold across China, accounting for nearly 80 percent of all Buicks sold worldwide and enabling the brand to set a global sales record in its 111th year.
As 2014 came to a close, Shanghai GM surpassed 10 million cumulative sales in record time for a passenger car manufacturer in China. It was an achievement that was largely due to Buick, the brand that first met China’s roads about a century earlier.