Peking film fans discover the drive-in

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The Independent Online
WHEN Wang Qishun announced that he was opening a drive-in movie theatre in Peking, his friends laughed. Some even tried to talk him out of it, suggesting something more conventional, such as a karaoke bar.

"They thought I'd never make any money," he said. "But I looked at drivers sitting in big traffic jams all day, and I looked at the obsession with owning a car here, and I thought people would really like a place where you could enjoy your car."

His silver screen now pokes out of an apple orchard on the outskirts of the city and since March, cars have been slowly but surely rolling in.

From the congested main road, bright fairy lights mark out the winding track that runs to the Maple Leaf Drive-In and a stetson-toting host. The parking area is covered in old paving stones from Tiananmen Square and can accommodate 100 vehicles, but has never yet been filled to capacity.

Wednesday's film - an old Chinese B-movie - attracted 18 vehicles, including a Cadillac and a smattering of Cherokee Jeeps. The charge per car is 60 yuan (pounds 4.60), or around three times a standard Chinese cinema ticket, but Mr Wang said his prices were well within the reach of Peking's drivers. "I guess you can say this drive-in represents a new generation," he said. "We used to call China the land of the bicycle, but cars are becoming the king now."

Five years ago, privately owned cars were out of reach for practically all Chinese, and most cars on the road were owned by companies or the government. But more than 3 per cent of Peking's residents now have their own set of wheels, and 80 per cent of car purchases last year were made by individuals. While this is bad news for Peking's streets - which are already maddeningly congested with the 1.5 million cars currently registered - it is good news for the Maple Leaf Drive-In.

"It's a new experience to take your car to a movie, and I brought my wife along, because it's pretty romantic," said Li Haijun, a new customer. His wife said the location was cool, but she wanted better movies.

Mr Wang plans to recoup his pounds 400,000 investment by screening more American films, including classics such as Gone with the Wind, but he feels he must wait until anger against the US over May's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade dies down.

Indeed, his efforts to distinguish the drive-in from the hundreds of downtown cinemas by screening a more eclectic mix of films have also been stymied: Peking's censors operate a strict quota on imported films. While Titanic went down a storm in China, James Bond's adventures in Tomorrow Never Dies were banned because the movie featured a corrupt Chinese general.

Pornography is not shown. Although pornographic videos and magazines are available in China, they remain highly illegal, and no registered cinema would risk showing such a film. The ban on screen sex does not appear to extend to snogging sessions or other romantic activity in the cars, however. Staff say they promote a relaxed atmosphere, and do not bother the movie viewers. With available housing scarce and three generations often living under one roof, couples do not get many other chances to be alone.

Indeed, romance may be the key to Wang's short-term cash flow. He has plans to use his quirky location for Western-style weddings, and has already hosted five.