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Life on Two Wheels - The Bicycle Kingdom

Source: CCTV

09-05-2006 10:30

I'm Nathan Jones. I've been living in China for about 4 years and one of the things that impressed me most when I first arrived and continues to play a role in my life is the bicycle. China truly is the bicycle kingdom, producing and using more bicycles than than any other nation in the world. But that's not all, the bicycle plays a very important role in Chinese culture. Bicycles are seen as matchmakers, friends, careers, and works of art. In this program we will rediscover the bicycle kingdom and I am confident, you will see bicycles in an entirely new way.

No one knows exactly when bicycles first arrived in China, but in the late Qing Dynasty, the traces of bicycle tires could be seen in the Forbidden City. Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty loved bicycles so much that he went so far as to order his servants to saw off the thresholds of the gates to make it more convenient for him to ride his bicycle.


Back then bicycles were rare, only those with power and money could buy one. With the establishment of the People's Republic of China and the setup of state-owned bicycle factories around China, the Chinese people showed great enthusiasm for the new traffic tool. Through the entire 1960s and 70s, the bicycle remained a difficult industrial products to acquire and it was considered a household luxury. During this period the sewing machine, watch and bicycle were regarded as the three most important and valuable assets that a family could own.

Bicycle In Beijing - Delivery

Interview a client:

It was very hard to buy a bicycle at the time, because China was a state- planned economy. We needed a purchasing ticket to buy a bicycle but it was not easy to get one. A certain number of employees were required to give blood and those employees who donated blood were given a ticket and it was with one of those tickets that I bought my first bicycle.

It was not only hard to get a bicycle but the price of a bicycle is very expensive and to many common families, it was a big decision for them to buy a bicycle.

Interview a Shanghai citizen:

When I was about 20, I bought my first bicycle. At the time, a bicycle cost about 170 or 180 yuan, and my monthly salary was just a little bit over 30 yuan. To buy a bicycle, I needed to save money for a whole year.

Despite the high price and the difficulties in acquiring a bicycle, the Chinese people were falling in love with bicycles and bicycles soon appeared in every corner of China and on every street.

photographer on the bicycle - Bike Photographer

Although the bicycle was invented in Europe, it gained unprecedented prevalence and development in China in the 20th century. When mentioning the most famous brands of bicycles in China, the Chinese people will tell you 3 names without giving it a thought. They are Flying Pigeon, Phoenix and Forever. Among the three bicycle factories, both Phoenix and Forever are located in Shanghai.

This is one of the oldest bicycle manufacturing centers in China and for the last 50 years has been a household name in China. This is, Forever Bicycles.

The Forever Bicycle Shanghai

The history of Forever Co. Ltd. can be traced back to 1940. As one of the earliest bicycle manufacturing enterprises in China, Forever Co. Ltd. has made great contributions to the development of China's bicycle industry and the culture it inspired.

Interview Gu Juexin (Chairman of the board, Shanghai Forever Co.,Ltd.)

This enterprise has having the history for 66 years from 1940 till now. It played a unique role in the developing history of bicycle in China, and belonged to the leader-styled enterprise for nearly 30 years. The bicycles in China are made by Forever accounting for one of ten equal parts. Many "Number One" in Chinese bicycle industry are created by Forever, Such as: the first standard bicycle, the racing bicycle and the 26-inch bicycle and so on.. The highest amounts of bicycle output can reach 6 million each year.

As time passed, the bicycle industry grew and developed rapidly in China. Today the bicycle is no longer something that is out of reach of middle and lower income families. Gradually it has become a common, integral part of daily life for most Chinese people. In many ways, China is a bicycle kingdom. The Chinese people own about 500 million bicycles and now, the size of China's bicycle output, consumption and export all rank No. 1 in the world.

Chinese people have very special feelings for their bicycles. Almost everyone that owns a bicycle, and that's pretty much everyone, can tell you a funny, touching, or surprising story about their relationship with their bicycles. Interview Mr. Wang Wenlan, a Photo Editor at China Daily is nicknamed "photographer on the bicycle" because for many years, he has ridden a bicycle around the alleys and streets of different Chinese cities to take pictures. What's interesting is that bicycles are also one of the main subjects that he takes pictures of. Mr. Wang Wenlan has been taking pictures of bicycles for over 30 years! He traveled almost every corner of China to take pictures and his photo collection has impressed a lot of people.
Interview Wang Wenlan, Photo Editor, China Daily:

I feel that bicycles have become a kind of life style for the Chinese people. China is often called the bicycle kingdom. I've traveled around China, including Taiwan, Hongkong and Macao and in the remote places and even the high snowy plateaus; there are traces of bicycles. Bicycles are a family necessity.

Like many other Chinese people, for Mr. Wang Wenlan, his bicycle is not simply a traffic tool but is an important part of his life.

Interview Wang Wenlan, Photo Editor, China Daily:

When my bicycle was broken, I felt like it was hurting, as if one of my brothers was injured and needed to be treated. So to me, a bicycle repair shop was just like a hospital. I felt really terrible when I lost my bicycle, and I couldn't sleep well. It felt like a big loss to me. Gradually, I began to feel that bicycles are like living things.

The first picture that Mr. Wang took of a bicycle was purely by chance but as more and more bicycles found their way into his photos, he found himself making the bicycles themselves the subject of his photography.

Mr. Wang said the more pictures I took, the more people commented that my eyes seemed to light up when I saw bicycle wheels, as if I was an addict!

In the past, Mr. Wang used to ride a bicycle to take pictures. Now, with the expansion of cities, Mr. Wang has bought a car for convenience. But every time he goes out to take pictures, he always takes a bicycle with him. AS he says, only when he is on a bicycle, does he find the inspiration to take pictures.

Some people love bicycles so much in their different sizes, colors and designs that they just simply can't get enough. Now after collecting and restoring bicycles for over 50 years, Mr. Wang Ming Xi has to be one of China's most passionate bicycle collectors.

Bicycle collectors

In this exhibition hall, there are many different types of bicycles, but they are only a part of Mr. Wang mingxi's collection. For him, these bicycles are an indispensable part of his life.


Interview Wang Mingxi, Bicycle Collector:

It's hard for people to understand why I collect bicycles. I have been in love with bicycles since I was a child. When I was about 5 or 6, I used to use an iron hook to get a wheel rolling down the road after school. Later, when I had grown up a little but was too short to reach the bicycle seat I would ride in a standing position. Once I saw a bicycle, I was always eager to ride. In those days it was much more admirable and fashionable to ride a bicycle than it is to drive a Benz or a BMW today.

From his love of riding bicycles to collecting them, Mr. Wang Mingxi has gathered more than 150 bicycles in half a century.

Wang Mingxi said this is the first Raleigh I bought in 1956. I've been cherishing it since the day I bought it all those years ago. It is still complete and in good shape. To keep it from rusting I brushed on red paint on the inside of its fender. This bicycle means a lot to me. It represents the beginning of my collection.

After buying his first bicycle and starting his collecting, Mr. Wang Mingxi was impassioned to begin his lifelong hobby of collecting bicycles. All the bicycles he bought have been restored and maintained by Mr. Wang Mingxi himself and he loves them just as though they were a part of his family. What he never expected is that his love for bicycles would bring him a troubles.

For bicycles, I even suffered in the Political Activities. In 1958, they made a poster of me with half my mind focused on teaching and the other half thinking about bicycles.

Mr. Wang Mingxi was impassioned

Although Wang Mingxi suffered a great deal for his bicycles, he never gave up his hobby and continued collecting bicycles. Among all his bicycles, Mr. Wang Mingxi is most proud of a Benjamin bicycle that was produced nearly 100 years ago. It is Mr. Wang's most valuable and prized bicycle. This kind of bicycle is extremely rare today and worth a great deal to collectors. At one point an English gentleman came to Mr. Wang twice asking to purchase the bicycle, he even offered to trade a car worth of 2 million Yuan for the Benjamin bicycle. However, Mr. Wang Mingxi declined his offer.

Wang Mingxi said I can't sell this bicycle because it is a part of the bicycle culture's development in China and should be used to remind people of this history. So, I'll never sell it no matter how much they offer me.

Due to lacking of funding, Mr. Wang maintains his bicycle exhibition hall in an underdeveloped suburb of Beijing. For this 70 year old man, his bicycles are his spiritual support and the only worldly possession that he truly cares about.

Wang Mingxi said my biggest wish is to set up a bicycle museum. I'm already over 70 now, and I do not know how much longer the movie of my life will go on. I have more than 100 bicycles and they are just like my children. Before I leave the world, I must make arrangements for them.

Benjamin bicycle

Now, what Mr. Wang hopes most is to find an enterprise to cooperate with him in establishing a bicycle museum so that his beloved bicycles can have a permanent home.

With the economic developments brought by China's policy of reform and opening up to the world, the very core ideas of the Chinese people are also changing. One of the most prominent places that this can be seen is in the acceptance of the vehicle into the household. Now for many middle and upper class families, when choosing a new form of transportation, the bicycle is not their only choice, nor is it their first choice.

Mr. and Mrs. Tang were born in the 1970s when bicycles were still considered a luxury item. Like many others living in China's big cities where the pace of life is fast, they bought a car out of necessity and for added convenience. Still, they have a lot to say about the role bicycles have played in their lives over the years.

Chinese Bicycle Family

Mrs. Tang said, I learned how to ride a bicycle when I was 7 or 8. At that time, there were many children living in my residential compound. All the other children admired those who could ride a bicycle. I learned to ride a bicycle at a very young age. The bicycle's speed seemed very fast. Back then, not many people had a bicycle so most people walked. Riding a bicycle past them, I felt very speedy.

Tang Xu said I could ride a bicycle since I was in primary school, but I had to ride my sister's bicycle. My classmates made fun of me because the bicycle was a red one. They laughed at me for riding a girl's bicycle. I was eager to have my own bicycle, a black 26-inch one. By 1988, I finally had my own bicycle. At that time, my home was on the fifth floor so for many months I had to carry my bicycle up the stairs. When I finished my homework, I would clean the bicycle and just looking at it would make me feel very satisfied.

For Tang Xu and Han Yu, bicycles have played many roles beyond that of a simple transportation tool. In fact, it was a bicycle that brought the couple together in the first place.

Mrs. Tang said back then I thought the riding positions of young boys were very handsome. Tang Xu could do more than ride though. He could push the seat of a bicycle with a single hand, and the bicycle would go in a straight line. Watching him from the back, I felt he was very capable and handsome. That is what attracted me to him most. In order to have an excuse for us to spend more time together, I sometimes flattened the tyres of my bicycle on purpose after class and told him I couldn't ride it. Naturally he would offer to give me a ride home. On the ride home he would balance my bicycle beside his as he rode. I felt that he was indeed a great man.

From falling love with each other to getting married, bicycles have always been there. To them, bicycles will always be a symbol of romance and change.

Millions bicycle

Han Yu said we got married in 2001. At that time, it was very popular to rent a wedding car to pick up the bride. But our families lived near each other and the hotel where we planned to have the celebration dinner was nearby, so we all thought there was no need to rent a car. My father said riding a bicycle would be most meaningful, because I had been riding a bicycle since I was a child and bicycles had played such an important role in our relationship. So after we prepared at home, my father put me on his old bicycle and rode me to the wedding banquet. While sitting on the back of my father's bicycle, I thought, "Will this be the last time I ride on my father's bicycle?" And I felt a little bit sad. But then thinking about riding with my husband in the future, I started to feel happy again. After the banquet, Tang Xu took me to our new home on his bicycle. Bicycles had carried me into a new life.

After buying their first car, the family is experiencing two different kinds of life - from the seat of their bicycles and their car.

Han Yu said driving a car and riding a bicycle give you different feelings. When driving a car you'll feel that your circle of life has gotten much bigger, you can go to faraway places. When riding a bicycle, you'll feel you are getting close to nature and you can enjoy the scenery along the way, which is not possible when you are driving. So the feelings are different.

Despite the deep affection that the family has for bicycles, the pressure of modern metropolitan life has relegated the role of bicycles in their life to that of recreation.

Tang Xu said in the past, bicycle was part of my life. Wherever I went, I always rode a bicycle and it was very convenient. I thought bicycle is an indispensable part of my life. But now with the pace of life getting faster and faster, there are more and more vehicles, and my living circle is getting bigger and bigger, the distance to work is getting longer and longer. Riding a bicycle can't meet my demand, so bicycle is only a supplement to my life now.

Although bicycles are gradually becoming less important in their lives now, the memories and affection for bicycles will never disappear.

China is gradually moving from a state-planned economy to a market economy, and the bicycle enterprises in China are facing fierce competition. With the popularization of automobiles in China and the entrance of foreign bicycle manufacturers, a great deal of pressure has been placed on China's famous bicycle manufacturers to redefine their strategies and continue to expand production.

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