Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 21 – The Car Designer (Ajay JAIN, Geely)

Oscar Fuchs
Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Oscar Fuchs

Ajay Jain has been designing cars since he could hold a pencil, and it was this passion that ultimately led him to becoming a strategic design manager for the electric vehicle range at Geely in Shanghai.

Original Date of Release: June 22, 2021.

Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 21 – The Car Designer (Ajay JAIN, Geely)


OF: What are the brands like in China?

AJ: There are about 500 brands.

OF: What the..?


OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.

In today's show, I'm talking with Ajay Jain, who is a senior car designer. This is very special episode to me, because I grew up in a household of car fanatics. My older brother Daniel could reel off all the statistics about every car model you could think of, and my father always kept a stack of the latest car magazines in the corner of what he called his 'library,' and what everyone else in the household called 'the downstairs toilet'. I had absolutely no interest in cars, and while I think I always quite enjoyed the scorn that this elicited, I couldn't help but also feel like I was missing out on something.

So today's episode is not just an amazing discussion - which encompasses so much about Ajay, about China, and about the very nature of artistic collaboration in a commercialised setting - it also feels like some kind of personal redemption for someone whose answer to the question "What's your favourite car" has always been "Blue ones".

[Part 1]

OF: Thank you so much, AJ.


OF: I'm here with AJ Jain, and AJ you are… What is your actual title?

AJ: I am ‘Senior Manager, Head of Strategic Design’.

OF: Got it. In short, you are a car designer.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: And you work at one of the big private companies here in China. We're not going to mention the company, are we? Because you are talking in your personal capacity. So we are going to make sure that there is a distance between you and the official word of the company.

AJ: Yeah. I believe it's the largest privately-owned car OEM in China.

OF: There you go.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: What is the object that you have brought in, that in some way describes your life in China?

AJ: It's this little sketchbook. So as a designer, I walk around with a sketchbook all the time. I have, until very recently, resisted the temptation of going digital. The one I've brought here today is actually from my previous employer. It's a British car company with a 90-year-anniversary sketchbook. It's the sketchbook I was using between transitioning from my previous job to my current job. And at the last few pages, I've just noticed, I have a few additions by my daughters, with pink fluorescent felt pens. That kind of sums it up, because my daughters born here in Shanghai, they've lived all their lives here - five years and three years - contributing to my creativity here.

OF: Oh how lovely.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: Well, I'm not sure I would buy the car that she had just tried to draw, it looks a little bit surreal. But the rest of the drawings looked very technical.

AJ: Oh, you’ve got no vision.

OF: This is why you're doing your job, and I'm doing mine. That is beautiful. And I think it's such an amazing insight into what you do. I mean, as a car designer, is it basically mainly sketching, is it?

AJ: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's creation. It's it's coming up with ideas. It's a lot of drawing. Drawing is the language of car design, especially when you work in different countries with different languages, different disciplines. You're talking to engineers, you're talking to marketing people, there's only one quick way of expressing ideas. And I think this works for almost any creative field.

OF: This is where I'm jealous, because I'm a terrible drawer. I can't sketch to save my life. No way.

AJ: It's like anything. Of course, there are many people who are born with the talent. And there are others who hone the talent. And it's like anything, with practice you just get better and better at it. It's a fluency that comes from practising.

OF: Right. And which one are you?

AJ: I thought I had talent. But then I went to college in Switzerland. And there, I realised that I didn't have talent. But what I did have was, it was like a boot camp. I mean, literally, first day of college, we had to draw 500 cubes, 1000 lines, you know. So it was practice, practice, practice, practice. And just build fluency.

OF: And that was in Switzerland.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: So what was that school then?

AJ: It's called the ArtCenter College of Design. Its original campus is in Pasadena, in California. And in the 80s, I think they decided that they wanted to create a global footprint of design colleges, so they created this college in Switzerland. It is now the private residence, I believe, of Shania Twain.

OF: Oh, you're kidding.

AJ: Yeah. It’s a beautiful old Chateau with a farmhouse, overlooking Lake Geneva, looking overlooking the French Alps.

OF: Oh, amazing.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: Well, there’s a connection I did not think would come up in this conversation.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: And so, for you, that was your first foray into the specialisation of car design. Or had you had any experience before?

AJ: Yeah, I was 17 and I had just come straight out of school. So I just knew, this is what I wanted to do.

OF: You knew since when?

AJ: Three years old?

OF: Oh right, you’re one of those guys.

AJ: Yeah. I’ve been drawing cars ever since I can remember, and playing with cars. And I think they’re the most fascinating man-made object there is.

OF: This is where? So where were you growing up?

AJ: I was growing up in India. Teenage years in Chennai, and early years in Mumbai.

OF: OK. Maybe this is a good chance to actually work out how the hell you got to China. Because I'm thinking about your object, and you said that you were transitioning at that point from a British company before you came to Shanghai. So what is the whole timeline, then?

AJ: At 17, I left India to go study in Switzerland. I had an internship, 1994, at Opel in Germany, after which I went back to college, finished my college, graduated in ’95. I moved to work in Cologne in Germany, I was there until ’97.

OF: Hang on, what this still Opel? No.

AJ: No, this was at Ford. Big American influence in the company and on my colleagues.

OF: And this was your first proper job then, right?

AJ: This was my first proper job, yeah.

OF: Right. And that was already in car design?

AJ: Yeah, that was as a car designer. Yeah, I was working on the rearview mirrors of the Ford Focus, and odds and ends, and door handles.

OF: That was one fine rearview mirror. Wow. AJ, great job. But presumably, because it was your first job, you already felt like “Wow, I've made it.” Like “Even though it's just this small mirror, I shouldn't complain." Or..?

AJ: There was a moment when I was complaining, and a 55-year-old engineer came up to me and and told me how lucky I was. Because he thought he was going to be designing. And by the time he finished his engineering college, got his job, and went into an engineering department, he realised it's not the same thing. So that made me realise it's quite a fortunate position to be in.

OF: Yeah, so even within the company, you had an exalted role.

AJ: Yeah, usually in a technical centre, or an engineering centre, there can be over 10,000 engineers, and you know, just a handful - 50-60 - designers. They don't have the same education, or the same expertise as the other engineers. And then I like to say, we've got this superpower, where we can actually visualise the future product. Everybody else can look at it in numbers, and spreadsheets, and projections, and charts; engineers can look at them a little bit at a time. We're the only ones who paint the full picture, because from the first sketch to when it gets into production on the road, takes about five years.

OF: Oh wow, yeah.

AJ: And that means, what I'm drawing now, I've got to think is gonna be trendsetting or leading in five years time. And then it has to sell for another 10 years. So that means it has to be ‘current’ for the next 15 years, yeah? So, you know, you do have to have a certain amount of ‘futuring’. By contrast, fashion design is just thinking about the next season. So I think it's somewhere between fashion and architecture. Because an architect had better get that building right, for the next 50 to 100 years.

OF: Yeah.

AJ: Car design is somewhere in between.

OF: Well we only made it as far as Ford. So what happened next?

AJ: Yeah, I moved to Daewoo in the UK, and I lived in Brighton and Hove, which was a different experience.

OF: How long were you in the UK?

AJ: I was there for four and a half years. Yeah, the Asian financial crisis happened, Daewoo went bankrupt, so I found this great opportunity for working at a very iconic brand in Sweden called Saab.

OF: Oh Saab, yep.

AJ: Yep.

OF: And that was where in Sweden?

AJ: I was working in Gothenburg. Seems to be a pattern, Saab went bankrupt, and…

OF: This is all your fault, AJ.

AJ: Yeah, in fact even the college I went to close down now.

OF: Yeah, right.

AJ: So this was the third time. So I moved to a place that I used too apply to, almost every time I was in a crisis and looking for a job. A dream car design studio, I'd say, which is Renault in France

OF: Renault, OK.

AJ: It's close to Versailles, so south of Paris.

OF: Nice.

AJ: I was at Renault for six years. Two years in France, then they sent me to India for two years to set up a design studio in India at Renault, and then I came back. And going there was fantastic.

OF: OK. Well, there are so many questions I could ask. But I guess I'll save that until we do Mosaic of France. Let's go to the next step, was that China then?

AJ: Yeah. China is where the car industry is booming. It's where all the jobs are right now, it’s where… there’s so much happening here. And I had a friend who was coming to Shanghai, and I knew that the only car design jobs were in Shanghai. I applied to my previous employers - ex-colleagues of mine, they were at what used to be MG Rover - and it was perfect, a perfect job for me to come here. That was nine years ago. Most of the time, I work in a very China-dominated environment. In my last job, there were just a couple of us. And then for a while, it was only me as a foreigner in a department of about 200 people. And, again, I just find them so optimistic and enthusiastic, with a nice dash of ambition and willingness to go the extra mile, and achieve great things. I would call it maybe a hunger.

OF: …Which you do get in Europe, but I guess it's a different kind of feeling.

AJ: A little more entitlement in Europe.

OF: Right.

OF: You know, everybody points out the ‘Little Emperors’ when they talk about young Chinese kids, but there's also the side of them really wanting to prove to their parents that they are good at doing what they're doing. And, you know, shake off their mollycoddled 'Little Emperor’ image. Whereas I think most of the European young guys would not really listen to an old guy in the studio, it'd be more of a competitive way, that tried to show their superiority and their ambition. Younger Chinese designers, they want to learn first, they want to assimilate the knowledge. When they think they've learned enough, they start becoming entitled, or challenging, or competitive.

OF: But then they've earned it, right?

AJ: They've earned it, for sure. And it's what the Chinese car industry is doing right now, where they've realised that “We've learned how to make cars. We've leapfrogged in terms of technology. We’ve gone into electric cars, and we’re probably better than anyone else before. And we've done it faster than anyone else, way faster than the Koreans, and the Japanese before them”. So you see this confidence that's just building, in just the same way. You see it on the country scale, and I see it on the personal scale.

OF: Yeah. For me, I'm not a car fanatic. So when I see a Chinese car, I don't really pay attention to it. Like, what are the brands like in China?

AJ: There are about 500 brands.

OF: What the..?

AJ: There are about 500 car brands, and all of them are difficult to really know. Many of them belong to a big conglomerate. You'd think it's a different brand, but actually it's part of 东风 [Dōngfēng] Group, or the the other groups. And every state, every region, seems to have these big industrial players, that are big employers, and they've got multiple brands. And then there are also all these little startups. I don't know this for a fact, but I can imagine that somebody up top says “Oh look. We manufacture way too many cars. But we can't shut those factories down, because a lot of people are dependent on those jobs, and that's what we use to bring people out of poverty into the middle classes. And now we’ve got to do something else with those factories”. And somebody says “Yeah, we’re going to make delivery drones,” or Mars exploratory vehicles, or whatever. And the fact that they've got their eyeballs in the future is just going to propel this country further and further.

OF: Yeah.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: Well, let's pivot back to you, because I'm sure there are people out there who understand cars more than I do, and they're shouting “Ask them about the car design!” So here's what I'm going to ask you first of all. So now you're in this current setup, how many people are in your design studio? And why don't you talk me through all the different people who you work with.

AJ: So I mean, firstly, no matter how well you know cars, I don't think anybody appreciates that a car has over 30,000 different pieces to go together.

OF: 30,000, right.

AJ: It is a really complicated piece of industrial engineering and mass production.

OF: I guess, when you compare it with a piece of furniture that’s…

AJ: Or you compare with a mobile phone as well, you know, which people consider very sophisticated manufacturing. You take it apart, and there's not that much that goes in there. And there are a lot of regulations to keep you alive in a crash, to keep you safe, to keep you moving. You're moving at 100 kilometres an hour. And everything that you touch, or feel, or can see on the car, has been designed by somebody. So while the dream of car design - or the image of a car designer - is somebody who's sitting and sketching this beautiful exterior, there's a lot of putting together little bits and pieces. And in a design studio, we've got designers who design the exterior, but then you'll have some who are specialising in lamps and other details. We’re split up into six different functions. There's people who do the branding, there's people who do all the communication, all the publicity, the logos, the way we project ourselves beyond the cars, including the motor shows, the dealerships. Typically the design studio will have some influence on the dealership, the point of sale, the colours, even the costumes of the hostesses.

OF: Right. Which is also part of car design, I guess.

AJ: Which is part of car design.

OF: Right.

AJ: And then you've got what I do, people who do strategy where we look at the plan for the next ten years, look at synergies, look at different products, look at different differentiation points, try to create a vision for the future that can then be translated into all the other projects. Today, you know, you've got people who are doing the software; or the interaction; the screen; the Human Machine Interface, the ‘HMI’. And then there's what we call ‘Colour, Materials, Finish’ designers. So a car is the only product that's sold in a multitude of different colours, specifications, we call them ‘trim levels’, each of them should look homogenous. You take shoes, for example, you get a pair of adidas trainers, and there's maybe three or four colour choices on one physical object. You know, Apple did five different colours, and it's like “Wow, there’s five.”

OF: Whoop-de-do.

AJ: Yeah. Whereas we’ve probably got 10-15 different permutations, combinations, and then all those colours and all those finishes need to work together. And then there's always special editions, sport editions. Then we've got cast modellers, physical clay sculptors, fabrication specialists who make things out of harder materials. So that level of craft in there. I

t’s like a massive factory, I call it the creativity factory.

OF: Yeah.

AJ: Then we've got to have an area to take the car outside. Because when you look at a car inside, it's not in its right environment. So you've got to take it outside to look at it, in reality, in nature, and against other cars, with natural light. I don't know, I would say it's like going to the zoo and looking at a tiger, or going to the Serengeti and seeing the lions take a hunt or something.

OF: And of course, you're not working in isolation. You have to work with the marketing team, you have to work with the engineers, right? Like, you have to work out what looks good, but what is actually possible too, right?

AJ: Yeah, unfortunately, we do.

OF: What is a general interaction that you are likely to have with either department?

AJ: The marketing department’s a tricky one. Because they know what's selling right now. They have a lot of data and it gets more and more. They have a lot of intel, they know what's successful, they know what's hot. And very often that clouds their judgement of what could be successful in the next five years. So it's really difficult to try and explain to them that they need to look beyond today. We have a hunch, which is all we have because we don't have their kind of data. And we've seen a trend towards this. So we got to extrapolate that.

OF: So that's with marketing. How about, then, with the engineers, for example?

AJ: Most of the engineers are very, very specialised. And organisationally, they're also very siloed. I remember in my first job, there was a lady - she was called ‘Badge Component Engineer’ - and she was fighting with the ‘Water Jet Engineer’, because the badge was interfering with the water jet on the back of the Ford Focus. So 30,000 parts, each of them has a specialisation of engineers who know how they're made. And then they probably have different suppliers for each of these parts, who have another expertise.

OF: Yeah.

AJ: So they look really, really, really a small section of what the big picture is. And they get very fixated on that - focusing on their project, or their car - and they don't look at the bigger picture of the brand, of the whole lineup of cars, which is really challenging.

OF: Right. It's the interaction between the idealism - the creativity - of designing; versus the practicality -the cost control - of the reality of making this car, right?

AJ: Yeah. Thank god we have something called concept cars. And that's when designers can show a vision of the future, without the constraints.

OF: Ah.

AJ: And have a little bit of breathing room as it were. But then you get people looking at it and saying “Oh, why didn't you make that car?”

OF: Oh.

AJ: They just don’t get it. “Why didn't that company make exactly that?”

OF: Because of the cost constraints, right?

AJ: Because of the cost, because of the time, because of the technology.

OF: Right.

AJ: So yeah, concept cars are rolling creative ideas. They are the ‘haute couture’ of fashion.

OF: How interesting. Yes,I can see exactly what you mean, with the parallel between car design and fashion design now.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: Yeah. Have you seen cars on the market where you think “Oh, I can tell exactly what went wrong in the process.” Where perhaps the designer went too far, or perhaps the engineer reined things in. Like, can you see, on the road, examples of when that's happened?

AJ: Oh, I really try not to judge other people's work. What we should be getting judged by - employed by - is by what we put in to the job. And we are a little bit of a snobbish industry, where a designer who's done a lot of concept cars - without any engineering constraints - seems to have a very high profile. Whereas designers who've been slogging it out - and are actually extremely competent, and good at their job - don’t seem to have such a high profile.

OF: Yeah. It’s such a big collaborative effort, right?

AJ: Yeah.

OF: What about, then, the car that you see on the street where you think “Oh, I wish I had designed that one”?

AJ: Oh, there are a lot of those. I'll tell you the ones that are even worse to look at, are the ones that you look at, snd you say “I had that”.

OF: Ah.

AJ: “Five years ago, I was there. I had just done it. And my boss didn't pick it up. And my engineers thought it was too crazy.” And there have been a few of those. And that's the one that you really look at with envy, and a little bit of regret.

OF: Totally. Because it's not like you can say “Right, screw you, I'm going to go make it by myself!”

AJ: Yeah, I wish. I hope that's where the industry is gonna evolve, with all these new technologies and…

OF: 3D printing at home.

AJ: 3D printing, manufacturing your own cars, open-source manufacturing. You know, I zap you the drawings, and somebody would make it in somewhere in 天津 [Tiānjīn] or 武汉 [Wǔhàn].

OF: Yes. Well, we’re talking about the future, so what are the trends coming down the pipeline that we should be looking forward to?

AJ: It's funny, because two years ago, if you asked me what I was doing, and I’d said “You know, I'm designing electric cars,” it was like I'm on the cutting edge of car design, beyond maybe designing a Ferrari, or the craziest concept cars. And it looks like somehow that bubble’s already burst. While all the European companies are now getting into gear to start making electric cars, China is going to move into hydrogen and fuel cells.

OF: How does that then affect the design work, for example?

AJ: When we moved from a horseless carriage, the horse disappeared, and then we could design this area to put the engine in, and then put the wheels next to the engine, and change the cabin. And then from that, over 100 years, the engine cabin’s almost pretty much stayed the same. And then electric cars come along, and then you say “Hey, we don't need an engine cabin”. But you've got this great big battery to worry about. There's also an aesthetic element. You know, when you're designing a fuel combustion car, you've got things like exhaust pipes and air vents, to show that kind of roaring power. And then you get into your electric cars, and then you're like “Ooh, I want it to look like a Dyson vacuum cleaner”. Look efficient, and aerodynamic, and soundless, and gives up nothing dirty. 15 years ago, my ex boss - and a good friend of mine - had posted on LinkedIn “What does electricity look like?” And that's a really interesting thought, that gets me moving. And I wrote to him the other day, I said "You've got to start thinking what hydrogen looks like”.

OF: Wow

AJ: Is it blue? Is it white?

OF: Yeah. Maybe we're going to be driving down the street in these clouds.

AJ: It certainly feels like it, on a scooter in Shanghai.

OF: Yes, because we haven't even talked about the sounds. Because you have to also design into the car, like, no rattles, right?

AJ: Yeah. Actually, the latest BMW concept, the sound is done by Hans Zimmer of all the Hollywood movies.

OF: Oh.

AJ: So all the soundscape, of the noises, of the sound. So there is also this discipline of sound design, which is just coming into our industry.

OF: Oh wow.

AJ: You know, all the ‘bings’ and the ‘bongs’ that you have. Obviously Apple phones, or any mobile phones, they've got this sound universe that also links in with their marketing and advertising.

OF: Yes.

AJ: So yeah, sounds. There's going to be all kinds of things.

OF: Even the little haptics

AJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

OF: Oh, gosh. OK. Yeah, you're making my mind swim a little bit. There's just too much that goes into what you do, I can see now. I get it. I get it.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: And what about you, then? I mean, we talked at the beginning about how you've come from India, to Switzerland, to Sweden, to France, to England, to Germany. It's kind of mind-blowing. I can sort of see your progression - just hearing your story - I can see it as 1) it's you chasing adventure; but you're also trying to run away from becoming redundant in your own field, right?

AJ: Yeah, I mean, the field changes. I mean, just drawing, we used to draw on a certain kind of paper, that paper stopped. We got onto drawing on computers, it's a new skill that I had to learn. So there's all these technologies that keep throwing stuff at you, and you have to keep up with it.

OF: Yeah. Well, at the beginning of that development, you said “drawing” and “writing” and "sketching", and I'm looking at your object still sitting here in between us on the table. Maybe it's making me think about my family. My father is an engineer, my brother is an engineer, my uncle is an engineer. I think I'm the only one who's not an engineer. You're not quite an engineer, but you're as close as an engineer as I've had in the studio. So I hope that my father is in some way proud of me for interviewing you.

AJ: Oh right. Yeah. I'm sure my father will be proud to hear the interview.

OF: There you go. AJ, thank you so much. That was fascinating. We are now going to move on to Part 2.

AJ: Oh right.

[Part 2]

OF: All right, the 10 questions.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: Are you ready?

AJ: I think so.

OF: Question 1.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: What is your favourite China-related fact?

AJ: Yeah, this one's interesting, because it's kind of related to India. By India banging into China, it means all the water flows south and all the rivers flow south. So India has got plenty of land, and arable land, and rivers, and fertile plains of the Ganges, and what have you. And they've got the luxury of being vegetarians, and then living off the land. Whereas China's got to find arable land. And only 2% of the world's arable land is consumed by 20% of the world's population. So that means the Chinese people are super resourceful, whether they cut steps into mountains, they eat different things. And I think that is also what makes them intrinsically programmed for innovation. Survival is their innovation.

OF: Right. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?

AJ: No, I don't. And if I did, I think my daughters would correct the pronunciation and the tones. Because they call me the 外国人 [Wàiguórén]. So…

OF: Yes. Is that something you hear in the office on a regular basis?

AJ: Yeah, a lot of my car designer friends are gonna go crazy when they hear this. It’s a word called 大气 [dàqì]. Literally, every foreigner who comes here to design cars is told by his boss “I want 大气 [dàqì].” And 大气 [dàqì] is something like ‘prestigious’ or ‘grand’ or ‘premium’ or… And this word drives all the car designers absolutely bonkers. Because a lot of the time, the CEO of the company will say 大气 [dàqì]. “No, this is not 大气 [dàqì] enough, you need to be 大气 [dàqì]”. And it's like “What is 大气 [dàqì]?” And it's this word that doesn't translate. It's a word that doesn't seem to have any specific meaning. But it's just something where basically, “Your design’s not good enough for China,” you know, “It's not good enough for me, and you’ve got to do better. It's not 大气 [dàqì] enough".

OF: Your everyday bane of your life is something I've never even heard of. So that just shows that there are different lives being led here in China.

AJ: Yeah.

OF: What is your favourite destination within China?

AJ: Shanghai. I’ve travelled quite a bit in China, I’ve moved around all my life, I've lived in many different places. Shanghai gives me the impression that I'm living in a different city every day. Everything is just constantly dynamic. The city reinvents itself, as it were. Five years ago, I was in Pasadena, in the college that I went to, and these kids were drawing what they thought was the future of transportation. And then they asked me how I went to work. And I told him that I scan a QR code, and get on any bicycle, get on a metro, and get off the metro, and take my Segway, and then zip into my office. And that sounded more futuristic than some of the things that they were conceptualising. So…

OF: Yeah. If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?

AJ: I'd miss everything I've just I've just told you about: the dynamism; the reinvention; the excitement; the convenience of everything; the actual efficiencies of how things, if they didn't work today, they are definitely working tomorrow.

OF: And what about anything that you wouldn't miss

AJ: ****ing around with my VPN. One of the biggest conveniences in China is to do with the internet. And one of the biggest frustrations in China is to do with the internet.

OF: Yeah.

AJ: It’s… yeah.

OF: It’s 阴 [yīn] and 阳 [yáng], baby.

AJ: Yeah, it’s the Chinese experience, you can't have both ways. You can't have only the convenience without some of the frustration. And currently they blocked WeChat in India. So now, people keep trying to contact me through WhatsApp. You know, I've got to fiddle around and try to get online, and they're trying to call me, and messaging me, wondering why I'm not responding to the messages.

OF: Yes, it is an interesting window into a potential future, right?

AJ: Yeah.

OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?

AJ: I just came back from from Beijing Motor Show. And do you know, this new cult of journalists are all people with rigs around themselves, holding cameras, and filming themselves next to cars. They're like girls dressed up for KTV, or a nightclub. They could be selling cosmetics, you know. I wonder, are they scripted? What do they say? You know, so it just… Everything, in every respect, felt out of context with the rest of the world?

OF: Yeah. That’s interesting, because that really is how the world treats the car that you've spent five years pushing through. Like, isn't that weird, when you finally see your baby come onto the market?

AJ: It is weird. In fact, it's like being a parent. You hope you did the best job you could. Your kids are never going to turn out exactly how you wanted them to. You still have a certain amount of pride, and a certain amount of misgivings and regrets.

OF: How funny.

AJ: So yeah, it's all of that, every few years.

OF: Well, I was saying it's your ‘baby,’ as a metaphor. But it really is!

AJ: But yeah, no. It's your child. It's your baby.

OF: Wow. Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or just hang out?

AJ: This one is a question I've thought about a lot, because it depends when you ask me this. You know, there was a time I used to love Unico, I used to love 永康路 [Yǒngkāng Lù], we used to go to Sugar before that. So right now, the nicest place for us to hang out is right opposite our house, less than 100 metres away, there's a little place called Porcellino. I'm sure next week it'll be something else. It’ll be another place.

OF: What is the best or worst purchase you have made in China?

AJ: Every time I buy something on Taobao, it's the worst thing you can buy. Impulse buying things, you look at the picture, you don't know what you bought. At one point of time, I decided I'm going to quit smoking. So I ended up buying mahogany e-pipes that looked like Sherlock Holmes.

OF: Oh an actual pipe?

AJ: Actual mahogany pipes, that look like pipes, but were e-pipes

OF: Oh this is your mid-life crisis.

AJ: And they… not a good thing. I did buy a projector one of my first purchases from Taobao.

OF: And that was a good one?

AJ: It's still in the box. I haven't opened it, I don't know.

OF: Dude! You are the worst impulse purchaser then. There's an interval between this being recorded and it going out. So I'll check up on you and see if you’ve actually unwrapped it by now. OK, what is your favourite WeChat sticker?

AJ: The one I send quite often - and I've been known to send it to my friends - is the ‘Happy Friday’ sticker. I don't actually look for the sticker, it just comes up when I write ‘TGIF’. And it's become a thing that I send a whole bunch of friends, ‘Happy Friday’.

OF: Super cute. It’s so simple, but I've never seen it before actually. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?

AJ: I've never been to KTV.

OF: 你真的是外国人 [Nǐ zhēnde shì wàiguórén].

AJ: Yeah. Aren’t KTVs dodgy?

OF: Ah OK, I know what image you have of them. No, it's about singing joyfully, sir.

AJ: Oh really? Well, now I'm never gonna get a chance, because my daughters have got microphones at home…

OF: Yes.

AJ: …With a speaker system, and they will never let me… They own them. So they want me to appreciate their singing.

OF: Ah.

AJ: You know, “Shark doo doo doo doo,” or whatever.

OF: Oh that’s gonna be your song.

AJ: Oh, no, I'm not allowed to sing that one.

OF: OK, next one. What other China-related media sources do you rely on?

AJ: Sitting and drawing cars all day, I've got a lot of time to listen to things, I can multitask that. And I started with audiobooks, and I got into podcasting. So I listen to a hell of a lot of stuff. There's obviously Mosaic of China now.

OF: Ah, thanks god.

AJ: I subscribe to The Economist, and I listen to the whole Economist cover-to-cover, and that has a very, very good China section. There's the Sinica podcast, which is very good. BBC News always seems to have something on China.

OF: Yeah.

AJ: But for me, The Economist’s China Section, every week you get the best bits.

OF: Yeah. AJ, fascinating conversation. Thank you so much.

AJ: It's been a great experience being here.

OF: And before I let you go, back to work, probably…

AJ: Yeah.

OF: The last thing I will ask you is, who would you recommend that I interview for the next series of Mosaic of China?

AJ: I'd recommend somebody who quit his career and moved into a very creative field, and is prolific in his work, and expressive in his work, and very successful, a guy called Siu. And obviously, Shanghai transformed him.

OF: Great. I can't wait to meet Siu. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for your time today, AJ

AJ: Brilliant. Thanks a lot.


OF: So the biggest update I have to share is that, after around a decade in China, Ajay and his family have recently said goodbye. They are now in Mumbai, where Ajay has taken up the position of Head of Advanced Design at the Indian auto company Mahindra. What that also means is that we are now free to say that at the time of this interview Ajay was working at the Chinese car company 吉利 [Jílì], that's spelt Geely when written in English. And the company he worked at before that was SAIC Motor. I'm also relieved to report that Ajay had found an apartment in Mumbai, had unpacked his container from Shanghai, and had moved his father up from Bangalore just before the country went into its most recent coronavirus lockdown. So I wish him - and anyone else listening to this in India - all the very best.

As with the previous 20 episodes of the Season, if you want to hear more from the conversation with Ajay, there's an extra 15 minutes in today's PREMIUM version of the show, which you can subscribe to on 爱发电 [Àifādiàn] in China or on Patreon everywhere else. Head to for instructions on how to subscribe, and here's a little taste of what you'll get.

[Clip 1]

AJ: It’s such a dynamic and changing world right now, there’s going to be self-driving cars, self-driving buses…

[Clip 2]

AJ: That Focus, I still see it driving around; I still see it in movies; I see it in America; I see it all over the world, actually.

OF: Yes.

[Clip 3]

AJ: They don't have 100 years of knowledge, so they make a lot of mistakes, and then there's a lot of things need fixing. But that all adds to the excitement and the experience.

[Clip 4]

AJ: At one point, there were 150 - I believe - new electric car startups in China.

[Clip 5]

AJ: It’s going to be very difficult very soon to tell the difference between a European car or a Chinese car.

OF: Yeah.

[Clip 6]

AJ: You can change direction, you can change the course of a country.

[End of Audio Clips]

There are some nice connections between Ajay and other episodes of the show. First of all, the object he chose - the sketchbook - was the same object chosen by the journalist Eric Olander from Season 01 Episode 03. They both obsessively carry their objects to jot down ideas, be they in words or in pictures. Ajay said that car design sits in between the worlds of fashion design and architecture. So be sure to check out the episodes with the fashion designer, Octo Cheung from Season 01 Episode 30, and the architect Wendy Saunders from Episode 12 of this Season. When Ajay said about the Chinese that "Survival is their innovation," this is the same as the favourite fact from Gina Li, the innovation CEO from Season 01 Episode 06. And finally, Ajay's choice of Shanghai as his favourite destination in China was the same as Jorge Luzio, the marketer at Coca-Cola from Season 01 Episode 05; and Chang Chihyun, the humanities professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University from Episode 03 of Season 02.

Last but not least, don't forget to check out the images alongside today's show on social media, you can find us on Instagram and Facebook, or connect with me on my WeChat ID: mosaicofchina and I'll add you to a listeners group there. Among a bunch of images, you'll also find Ajay with his object; his favourite 'Happy Friday' WeChat sticker; and a selection of him in action, including with the Geometry Range of electric cars that he designed for Geely.

Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Thank you as always for listening - especially if you've made it this far - and we'll be back again next week.

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