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A night at the picture show

Sunday, April 18, 2004

BEIJING -- It's Saturday night, and shiny new cars rumble onto the leafy lot. Customers munch dried squid. On the screen above, Tom Cruise is speaking Chinese.

China is at the drive-in.

"We all work so hard nowadays that after work you want to be lighthearted," said Liu Xiu, who came to the Maple Motor Cinema to see "The Last Samurai." Also in the family's year-old Citroen sedan were her husband and 5-year-old daughter.

"And what could be more relaxing than watching a movie from your car?" Liu said.

Drive-ins, fading into history in the United States, are an exciting novelty in China, whose economic boom is creating an urban class that can afford to buy cars -- and wants the newest thrill.

It would have been unimaginable 10 years ago, when Beijing's professional elite were still saving for their first television.

"Up until I was in middle school, I had never even sat in a car," said the drive-in's 40-year-old owner, Wang Qishun, a native of the gritty northeastern industrial city of Shenyang. "We didn't even have bicycles, so we'd walk or run to movies. We'd run as fast as our legs could carry us."

Back then, even setting foot in a theater was a luxury, so a public park with a sheet for a screen would double as a cinema.

"We'd watch movies outside and sit on a rock or a small bench," said Wang.

"You could say that we Chinese have gone from sitting on a rock to sitting in a car."

A quiet night out

The Maple Motor Cinema is less a hotbed of weekend revelry than a quiet night out for those with the means.

Huge lighted movie posters flank the entrance. Strings of lights illuminate the winding, tree-lined drive to the five screens, sheltered by trees from the city noise.

No carhops or "American Graffiti"-style preening teenagers at this drive-in -- just a subdued after-dinner crowd.

Business was especially brisk last year during the SARS outbreak, when Beijing cinemas and restaurants were ordered to close to prevent crowding that might spread the virus.

"Cars were lining up to get in here," Wang said. "We were the only cultural activity open in Beijing."

Car owners are still a privileged minority in China, where annual income averages just $1,000 per person and most families get by on far less. But as life for city dwellers approaches what Americans might call "middle class," cars are changing the way people live.

Beijing and other cities are demolishing centuries-old neighborhoods to make way for wide avenues. Rice paddies are being replaced by fancy suburbs for families that can afford to drive to work.

"When I started this drive-in movie theater in 1998, few people had their own cars. But since 2000, private car ownership has grown extremely fast, especially here in Beijing," Wang said.

China's car culture is still so new that Wang says he only breaks even showing movies. Tickets are $9.50 per car, no matter how many people are inside. Profits come from three restaurants on the 15-acre site.

The Maple Motor Cinema can hold about 100 cars, but Wang said most weekend nights he gets only a few dozen.

Most cars are filled with young families, but late-night moviegoers include necking couples -- another novelty in strait-laced China.

Wang treated it as news.

"Hugging and kissing?" he said. "Maybe they do that in America, where people are more liberated. But not here in China."

Gong Aihua, the boss of a medical instrument company, said he likes the drive-in because "you can watch the movie in your own environment."

"It's just better," he said as he pulled bags of snacks from the trunk of his Buick sedan. "It improves your impression of the movie."

His daughter agreed. Drive-in movies, said 11-year-old Mengyuan, "are really excellent."


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