Are there no hipsters in China? Why Chinese bicyclists have resisted the ironic fixed-gear trend that has swept the…

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 21 2010 2:22 PM

Are There Really No Hipsters in China?

Irony-resisting Chinese bicyclists have skipped the fixed-gear trend that has swept the rest of the world.

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Over cold cafeteria duck, Qin Haocheng, the president of the university's bicycle club, bemoaned his fellow students' lack of interest in their bikes: "Most of the students don't understand why the bike society exists," he said. The club only has 10 members, he admitted, on a campus of over 20,000.

Bicycles weren't always associated with poverty in China. In fact, after the revolution, they were a central part of what it meant to live a comfortable, modern life: "three rounds and a sound"—bicycle, clock, sewing machine, radio—were the essentials a man was expected to provide his wife. Many of the same bikes that were a sign of wealth 50 years ago are still puttering along, hulking cruisers from brands like Flying Pigeon, Forever, and Phoenix.

Jeff Stracco, who blogs about classic Chinese bicycles, became obsessed with these old models when he came to Beijing, but he found that few young Chinese people shared his interest in the classics. "There's no college kid saying 'I love this bike, it was my dad's.' There's no one like that," he said. Stracco, who's 41, spends many weekend mornings at used-bike markets, where "the youngest guy might be me." The Chinese people who do take an interest, he said, are mainly focused on leisure riding for fun and exercise.

An homage to cycling style at Ines Brunn's shop, Natooke, in Beijing. Click image to expand.
An homage to cycling style at Ines Brunn's shop, Natooke, in Beijing

Still, despite the odds, a handful of devotees from the West believe that now is the time to import the fixed-gear trend to China.

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Hanging in the window of Ines Brunn's new fixed-gear bike shop—Beijing's first—is a Flying Pigeon that's been converted into a fixie, a literal link between the past and what she believes will be the future.

"People ask: Why do you open a bike shop in Beijing? I think, well, you can do anything here," said Brunn, a German-born physicist and acrobatic fixed-gear rider. In a year, her riding group has swelled from seven to 70. "I am optimistic!" she told a Beijing audience in November. "I see signs that the perception of the bicycle is changing."

Tyler Bowa is similarly optimistic. In less than a year, the 22-year-old Canadian has established a small but excited fixed gear and bike polo scene in Shanghai, where he lives, and on the Web. His site, the People's Bike, expanded this year with shop and ride guides for a dozen Chinese cities from Hangzhou to Wuhan. Bowa's goal seems clear from a recent article on the site: "Can Hipster Youth Reinvigorate Bike Culture in China?"

A pair of fixed-gear bikes on sale in Beijing. Click image to expand.
A rare sight: Fixed-gear bikes for sale in a Beijing bike shop

Even with this growth, the scene is still very small, Bowa admits. After all, it's challenging to change people's attitudes about both the bicycle and the appeal of ironic fashion. "Most of the guys in the small cities only have about 10 guys to ride fixed-gear with," Bowa said. Though he stressed that he's never turned away a cyclist from a ride because he or she wasn't on a fixie.

His Chinese business partner, Karl Ke, says it's hard to get past China's utilitarian attitude to the bike. While fixed-gear aficionados generally take loving care of their high-end rides, few Chinese bikers see the point: "It's just a tool," Ke said. "You never wash your hammer."

And, he might have added, there's never been much of a market for ironic hammers.

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J. David Goodman writes about urban cycling for the New York Times.