Seventy-four-year-old retired electrician Mr. Ma, who also goes by the monicker “Zhuan Ren” (meaning “specialized person”), has been hand-crafting intricate miniature bicycles from simple copper wire and selling them on the streets of Shanghai for nearly two decades. Why bikes? “China is the kingdom of bicycles,” Ma explains. We caught up with Mr. Ma recently at his usual spot, outside the Bi Feng Tang on Nanjing Xi Lu, near Tongren Lu.
How long have you been making miniature wire bikes? Eighteen years.
Before that, what did you do? I was an electrician. I fixed things like lamps and electric motors for a commercial firm. I started making the bikes after I retired.
Why did you decide to start crafting the bicycles? Well, my thoughts are different from other retired workers. Some choose to be crossing guards, some choose to be janitors, you know, all sorts of things. Others buy wholesale from Yu Garden and then do retail in the streets. But I wanted to do something nobody else does, you know? If you just sell common things others can sell, then you’ll never get enough business when there are dozens of people who sell similar stuff. I want to do something that stands out. I saw there were so many different vehicles on the streets. And I thought it’d be a nice piece of art if I could make miniature models of those vehicles. People must like them.
How did you come across the idea of using copper wire? The reason why I used copper is because copper wires don’t rust like iron wires. It’s also strong enough to last, unlike bamboo. This material is not just copper wire, it has insulation coating. It’s used in electric motors. I was an electrician, so I know this material is best for my creations.
Do you enjoy making the bicycles more than you did your job as an electrician? Of course. On one hand, it’s not strenuous. It’s small and easier to make. The job also has lots of freedom to it. If I feel like going out earlier or later, I can. Or if I don’t want to do business one day, I don’t have to. And there is always pleasure to it.
What pleasure? If my products are appreciated by the buyers I feel happy. Like an author who writes a bestseller, he will feel pleased. If no one appreciates the book, no matter how good the book is written, it’d be useless. If what I do gets people’s recognition, I feel happy.
Do you make more money from this job than you did being an electrician? A lot more. At least seven to eight times more.
Has it always been so good? The business has been good since I started it. I expected business to be good, because the items are so rare. People like rare stuff.
Have you been making the same style bicycles since the beginning, or have styles changed over time? There are so many styles—I’ve got styles I don’t have time to do. I change styles when I have time. I once made a merry-go-round, a miniature merry-go-round that could really spin. I’ve made motorcycles with side-cars, rickshaws, monocycles, tricycles, and so on. They sell so fast that I had to take reservations.
How much time do you spend making and selling your bikes? About 10 hours a day.
How long does it take to make each one? Standard bikes takes an hour, the tricycle carriages take three hours. Double bikes take two hours.
What pieces take the longest? Motorcycles with sidecars—they take at least three days. You know, because all parts have to be hand made, and the result is very good. There are too many parts for a motorcycle.
Have you been using the same kind of materials since you started? At the beginning, I used iron wire, because it’s really, really cheap. I still sometimes pick up some from the streets. I use that for practice.
Why do you think your bicycles are so popular? China is the kingdom of bicycles. China has more bikes than any other country in the world. It’s a major means of transportation. When you are out on the streets, you see so many of them. Even today, majority of people still don’t drive cars, right? They may get a cab at most. But the majority of the people, every family has bikes, one family must have several. At least one or two.
Do you ride a bike? Yes.
Where is your bike? It’s parked over there. I’ll tell you what, you know why I ride a bike? I’ve been riding a bike since I was young. There are motorcycles, electric powered bikes and cars. I can afford all those, but I won’t buy those because I want to exercise. You may feel comfortable sitting in a car, but the air inside is bad because it’s an enclosed area, right? Electric powered bikes deprive the chance for your limbs to exercise, though there’d be enough fresh air around. It’s bad. These type of modern amenities jeopardize health. Some people just can’t see it. All they know is to enjoy those amenities. “Oh, now that I have an electric powered bike, I can dump my bike! I am gonna enjoy it.” When you enjoy, you will actually degenerate. No more exercise. Then your health will be in trouble. But a lot of people just wouldn’t understand.
What buys your products? Who seems to be most interested? Now, in China, people living off their salary will likely not buy it. But those white collar workers, or small, medium, or big business owners, you know, that kind—they will. Because it’s no big deal to him to pay that much. But for people depending on their salary, like if they make over a thousand yuan (US$120) a month, right, with all the expenses at home, kid’s education, they would think twice when spending that kind of money. This money can buy several day’s foods, right? If he thinks that way, he won’t buy it. But the rich, since they have savings and might not be tight with cash, buying one won’t matter.
Are most of your customers Chinese or foreign? Just now, I was talking about domestic customers. For foreign countries, usually it’s tourists from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan that would be interested. And also, American tourists who come to China. International tourists are here in Shanghai for fun, then they must have some money with them. My customers are about half local and half foreign.
What do you think people like about your products? Those who like my stuff think the idea is unique. You know, they think at my age it’s really amazing that I can come up with such ideas. Also the craftsmanship is good and the products are beautiful. They like them. Some told me that they had had no plan to buy but when they saw the craftsmanship and my ability they decided to buy one as a souvenir. Sometimes they take pictures. Foreign tourists would buy one bike and then take a picture with me. Most of them like taking pictures.
Have you received much media attention? American, French, German. I can’t watch their TV programs, but they would tell me if my story ever got to the newspaper. I know my story was in an American newspaper because a Chinese-American came to me after he read my story in the newspaper. My picture was in the paper.
How do you choose the locations in Shanghai where you sell your art? First of all, find a place with lots of people. You can only sell when there are lots of people. Secondly, find places where rich people would be. If you go to Beijing Road, nobody will buy. Their financial status won’t allow them. But here, you see this place is packed. Sometimes I sell my stuff until 3 am.
How long do you plan on doing this? Now I am 74. If you say I am old, I’ve been retired for 18 years. If you say I am young, judging from my current health conditions, I am still not old enough. There are plenty of people in their 80s or 90s. so I will probably do it for another five or six years.
Are there many copycats? Do other people try to make the same products? Tell you what, I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and 10 years out of that I was alone on the market. Some smart people can buy a few from me and then imitate. At first there were 20 copycats. As years go by, lots of them went out of business. Now, at most, there are five copycats. Even those five are struggling for business, because buyers will compare their products with mine. They know their products are not as good as mine. They know they are copying it from me. If you put our products together, you will see the differences. Their products are not as delicate. Some people won’t buy theirs and still come to me.
Mr. Ma can be found most days of the week on Nanjing Xi Lu, near Tongren Lu, in front of Bi Feng Tang Restaurant. Those not in Shanghai can purchase his bikes online here.