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With vivid vehicles, China's colour kids buck conformity – and point to lingering inequality

For a new generation of wealthy Chinese motorists, changing their cars' hue is as easy as changing clothes. Nathan VanderKlippe looks under the hood of a social phenomenon

Zhaozhao, 20, changes the colour roughly once a month on his 700-horsepower Lamborghini Aventador – sometimes to avoid police responding to neighbours’ noise complaints. ‘I just love having different colours all the time,’ he says. ‘I get fed up quickly.’

Zhaozhao bursts onto the body-shop floor behind the wheel of his lime green 700-horsepower Lamborghini Aventador, its tailpipe shrieking.

The driver door scissors up and he stumbles out with a harried look as he watches two police officers walk in behind him. They demand to see his documents.

"Didn't you stop me on the street few days ago?" asks Zhaozhao, 20, his face solicitous behind oversized square wire-frame glasses.

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One of the officers laughs. "Did I?"

"You don't remember?" Zhaozhao says. "My car was blue then."

The police glance at his papers, nod and leave.

Then Zhaozhao explains how he became one of China's colour kids, a generation of hue-swapping car owners – many of them born into money and lusting to buck an upbringing that still often demands conformity, although their taste for extravagant vehicles also puts an exclamation mark on China's widening social inequality.

Car lovers the world round modify their rides. But in China, the biggest automotive market on Earth, changing colours is particularly popular, as people treat their personal transportation like outerwear.

A selection of some of the colourful cars that get dressed up at Beijing’s Top Clean, a destination of choice for young Chinese car enthusiasts who want to recolour their vehicles.

Some apply new colours a few times a year. Some even switch colours to attend a party. Applying a full-body colour wrap costs $2,000 to $4,000, and can take as little as a day.

"It's just like your clothes – you want other people to notice what you're wearing, right?" said Kengo Quan, a manager with the Chinese company that makes CYS brand automotive colour wraps. Its sales figures alone show that people in China changed car colours millions of times this year.

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CYS offers 198 colour options, including a hue-shifting "rainbow storm grey," mirror-finish "iridescence chrome gold" and, for those looking to match their latest gadget, the shade of each new model of iPhone.

"Why do they do it? Because it's fancy and cool," Mr. Quan says. "Black and white are very ordinary. What if I don't like ordinary things? What if I want something different, something that can reflect my uniqueness, that separates me from the masses?"

Sometimes, that means going outrageous: Zebra stripes on an Audi A6 and hundreds of LV logos on an A5; kitty ears on a hot pink McLaren 650S; a blue-and-black Holstein pattern on a Nissan GTR; a Land Rover in a red-and-black patchwork; a C63 AMG Mercedes-Benz in camouflage; a gold-plated Infiniti and a Tiffany-blue Maserati.

Sometimes, that means using colour to escape the law.

When Zhaozhao first took delivery of the Aventador, his second Lamborghini, it was orange – "arancio," in the manufacturer's lexicon.

He soon had reason to switch it up.

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His $35,000 exhaust system, he boasts, is the loudest in Beijing, a wailing screech that generates fighter-jet volumes and tongues of flame. Neighbours aren't impressed when he screams home in the wee hours and have called police to complain.

"To get away, he came to our shop and changed the colour of his car," laughs Kang Yue, whose Top Clean operation, its logo styled after BBC's Top Gear show, is a popular destination for the city's motorheads.

Kang Yue, proprietor of Beijing’s Top Clean.

"The cops didn't know what to do, because they honestly could not be sure which car belonged to him," Mr. Kang said. (Zhaozhao doesn't affix a licence plate to his car, preferring a paper version he can show police.)

This happened more than once, as Zhaozhao quickly cycled through colours: stormy black, a Tron-like scheme with glow-in-the-dark lines, prancing-horse red, baby blue and, most recently, a bright lime green called Pantone: greenery.

"Basically I change colours once a month," he said.

"I just love having different colours all the time. I get fed up quickly."

None of this is particularly sensible, he acknowledges. The application of colour wraps hurt resale value. Then there is the matter of the law: Chinese rules restrict the ability of car owners to switch colours. Those who do risk fines or worse if police stop them.

Zhaozhao's car has been towed twice; he has lost count of the times he has been pulled over. (Asked what he does for work, he calls himself a "labourer" who drives for his father and his uncle, both wealthy.)

But the desire to stand out is not his alone. China's 1990s-born generation, who number among the country's most enthusiastic colour-swappers, value appearance and style in cars more highly than similarly aged buyers in international markets, a 2015 report by CITIC bank found. Reliability and quality are secondary considerations. Young car owners "place more importance on diversity and customization in their consumption habits," the report found.

The topic of automotive decoration has even prompted academic study in China. A 2013 social-sciences paper by Nie Demin, a scholar at Nanchang University, called such alterations "part of human freedom, and we should be tolerant toward this kind of expression."

In a China increasingly divided by income, wealthy motorists might install steering-wheel covers to match their iPhones or a starry-night pattern to the interior ceiling of a Rolls-Royce. The owner of this Audi R8 has opted for bright pink. COURTESY OF TOP CLEAN

At the same time, the sight of a bubblegum-pink McLaren driven by a teenager is a striking symbol of China's most intractable problems. Although President Xi Jinping has declared "war on poverty," the country's rich continue to fare much better than its poor.

The top 1 per cent now command a third of the country's wealth, and the China's Gini co-efficient, a measure of inequality, actually worsened last year. In an era of "new socialism," China remains among the most unequal societies on Earth, boasting more U.S.-dollar billionaires than the United States itself. For a child born into that wealth, changing the colour of a Ferrari becomes something akin to an imperative, as a way to stand out from a crowd of friends with the same model.

Corruption in China, too, continues in plain sight despite an anti-graft campaign that has been a hallmark of Mr. Xi's tenure. Some parents of Top Clean's young customers are in business, but "some are government officials," Mr. Kang says.

At the same time, the colour kids offer a particularly vibrant window into the ways people in China continue to open, bucking political trends in the opposite direction.

"I've been in this industry for nearly 16 years, and I have totally witnessed the changes in Chinese society," said Lang Hongwei, management operations director at AFK, a Beijing paint and shine shop. When he started, "the cars were basically the 'Chinese old three' " – VW Santana, VW Jetta and Citroen Fukang – and "almost of them were old models," he said. If people altered their car, they might add a seat identical to those in the Great Hall of the People, the legislature commanded by the Chinese Communist Party.

Today, a customer might install a glossy black steering-wheel cover to match the finish of her iPhone, or add a starry-night pattern to the interior ceiling of his Rolls-Royce. Internet censors may block Instagram, but young people still trawl it for ideas.

"We are now in an era where everyone's uniqueness and personality is encouraged. We no longer praise uniformity; we praise difference," said Ma Zheng, planning department manager at AFK

That's not always obvious on vehicle lots: in 2014, fully 57 per cent of cars sold in China were white, according to the China Automobile Dealers Association. Black, the preferred colour of government vehicles, was the next most popular at 10 per cent.

But Zhu Yumo, 26, a Beijing tattoo artist who has swapped colours on both of his cars – including a Lexus that now sports a mirror-face grey coat – expects the ranks of the colour kids to continue swelling.

"Because people are getting richer, the number of cars per household is increasing," he said.

"And young people are chasing after ways to demonstrate their personality. They want to grab any possible opportunity to show off what they have."

With reports from Alexandra Li


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