“There are nine million bicycles in Beijing/ That’s a fact / It’s a thing we can’t deny,” sang the Georgian-British songstress Katie Melua on her mildly inane 2005 hit single “Nine Million Bicycles”. A couple of years after the ditty’s release, Melua’s estimate was questioned by CBS News in the United States, which reported that the Chinese capital, in actual fact, housed about 13 million bikes.
Neither the award-winning singer nor the American news network, though, mentioned anything about the social cachet of bicycles in the city.
For most Beijingers in the noughties, when China’s economy was going interstellar, cycling was purely functional – something you did only if you couldn’t afford a car. This wasn’t always the case. Decades ago, cars were the exclusive preserve of the political elite and people with guanxi – or connections and social clout – and upgrading to four wheels wasn’t an option available to many residents, regardless of income.
In early 1970s Beijing…an estimated three million bicycle trips took place each day in the city, largely on bikes made by the state-promoted brand Flying Pigeon
Beijing was considered the bicycle capital of the world. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s captivating 1972 documentary, Chung Kuo, Cina, filmed during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, even recorded iconic images of hordes of Beijingers in Mao suits on bikes cruising past stark Communist monuments, with few motorized vehicles in sight.
In early 1970s Beijing, owning sanshengyixiang (literally “three rounds and sound” and referring to a wristwatch, bicycle, sewing machine and radio) was considered the marker of modernity. An estimated three million bicycle trips took place each day in the city, largely on bikes made by the state-promoted brand Flying Pigeon.
Incidentally, the firm still operates out of Tianjin, and has provided the two-wheeled contraptions as diplomatic gifts to world leaders including the late Fidel Castro, David Cameron and Donald Trump (who arguably hasn’t fully embraced the environmentally friendly mindset associated with the vehicle).
But China’s gradual opening up in the 1980s allowed more imports into the country and put the emphasis on cars, while a modernization in the 1990s put the pedal to the metal. According to the Earth Policy Institute, between 1995 and 2005, bike ownership across the country nosedived from 670 million to 435 million.
“ANYONE SEEN RIDING A BIKE was seen as old hat,” says Shannon Bufton, the Australian founder of Serk Cycling, a bicycle shop and tour company he runs in the city’s Beixingqiao area. “There was a TV dating show on which a girl was asked by a guy if she’d go for a ride on the back of his bike. She said, ‘I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than be happy on the back of a bike.’ But around 2012 to 2013, I could see the image of the bicycle in Beijing starting to shift.”
There was a TV dating show on which a girl was asked by a guy if she’d go for a ride on the back of his bike. She said, ‘I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than be happy on the back of a bike’
Bufton, bike-oil-for-blood and never without his cycling cap, tells me that you don’t hear attitudes like that dating show brat’s these days. He explains that over the past few years, more and more locals – inspired by the rise of cool cycling scenes in foreign cities such as Copenhagen and Portland, coupled with rising awareness of environmental issues – have been buying expensive bike gear as a status symbol and taking up cycling as a serious hobby.
With the Chinese capital having experienced crippling traffic and dire pollution problems for years, the government and its state-controlled media have jumped aboard the cycling bandwagon and encouraged the shift, too. Bufton reveals, “I’ve gotten interviewed loads by the state media, who say, ‘The government says we need to do stories on bikes – just tell us anything!’”
A trip to Sanlitun, Beijing’s fashionable shopping area, confirms that cycling is hugely back in vogue here. Hands that aren’t clasping white-and-green Starbucks takeaway cups are gripping bike handles. Row upon row of parked blue, yellow, silver and orange frames make paths spoke-laden obstacle courses, with almost as many cruising the narrow streets, ridden by flocks of shopping bag-laden riders.