A little more than five years ago, Shanghai police arrested Chen Genrong, the mastermind behind the underground production of fake Phoenix-brand bicycles. Shanghai Star reported then that daily around 1,500 bicycles used to be shipped from his secret warehouse on Gong Qing Tuan Lu in order to be sold nationwide.
The arrest might have raised a few foreign eyebrows living and working in a country that managed to eschew the paradox out of such terms as “genuine imitation” and “authentic replica”. However, when it comes to bicycles, such things as authenticity, prestige, and customer loyalty are still going strong in Shanghai. It is, after all, the city where this strange pedaling machine was introduced by expats in the late 19th century.
The uninterrupted local affair with bicycling began to slowly take off sometime in the 1890s when the first Chinese started getting over the fear of losing face and climbed onto the Western machine which, according Huatu Xinbao (The Chinese Illustrated News), “[C]an buzz along like the wind, faster than a horse-drawn cart. But only when you have enough practice in using it.”
Limited at first to students returning from abroad, businessmen, and sons of wealthy families, the bicycle’s publicity received a boost after the 1902 exhibition of British bike manufacturers in Shanghai. Sing-song girls, the first female riders, zoomed freely around the city, unhampered by the social mores or lack of disposable income.
Gradually, the bicycle was appropriated by soldiers, postal workers, and (rather unfortunately for bicycle imitators the likes of Chen Genrong) special police units. But the true democratization of the bicycle happened only with the establishment of a domestic biking industry in Shanghai in the 1930s and the lowering of the prices sufficiently enough to allow the commoners, lao bai xing, to purchase one with a bit of financial management. This is when the true veterans of Chinese transportation, the famous Phoenix and Forever brands, made their appearance on the market and refused to let go. Hailed as the perfect proletarian mode of transport by the Communist Party, bicycles to this day remain endemic on the streets of Shanghai.
But the wheels of history are turning and Shanghai and more and more residents are trading in their bikes for automobiles. As of December 2003 police banned bicyclists from the major city roads in order to make way for more car traffic, and increased fines for such transgressions as running red lights.
First-time bicyclists in the city can be baffled by Shanghai’s many restrictions, one-way streets, and parking dos and don’ts. Bicycles were for so long considered bonafide road vehicles in China that the ownership of one apparently comes with a set of regulations and responsibilities similar to scooters or small motorcycles (and they indeed impatiently share the same road lanes with bicycles in Shanghai).
Shanghai streets are still considerably more dangerous for bicyclists, and navigating the city during the rush hour requires skill, focus and a bit of luck. The good news is, according to People’s Daily Online, injuries to pedestrians are decreasing due to tougher punishment laws and drivers now “take full responsibility for any car accident that hurts or kills a pedestrian, including jaywalkers who previously had to share responsibility for the mishap.” Although the new law appears to benefit primarily the pedestrians, the increase in drivers’ vigilance will doubtless make the streets safer for bicyclists, as well. (Okay, maybe.)
Still, Shanghai police have yet to enforce any definite bans on sidewalk riding. Most of the time, during rush hour, bicyclists end up moving marginally faster than the taxis. Road rage as a social phenomenon is seemingly absent and no one’s breaks are in good enough order to move fast enough to risk a serious accident. And anyone unfamiliar with the intoxicating pleasure of returning home along the deserted, sycamore lined avenues of the French Concession is seriously missing out on one of the more sybaritic delights of living in the city.
Image from Imperial Tours.