BEIJING—A multicolored messenger bag slung over one shoulder and short-brimmed hat cocked to the side, Nie Zheng parked his brakeless bike in the corner of a trendy cafe in the Beijing Central Business District before settling into a molded plastic chair to chat about his particular obsession. "It's been a dream since I was a kid to get a bicycle like this," the 40-year-old fashion photographer told me. "But no one sold them here." It took nearly nine months, he said, to get a track bike he wanted sent from England in 2007.
Such devotion is something of a rarity among the fashion-conscious in China, where bicycles are simply not mainstream cool. In fact, this bike-saturated nation has—so far—managed to skip entirely what is arguably the biggest global bicycle fad in a generation: the fixed-gear.
And the absence is notable. Despite the rise in car ownership, China remains the world's largest bike market, with 51 million sold in 2009, according to the China Bicycle Association. With so many bikes, is it really possible that, apart from a few devotees like Zheng, no one in China got the trend memo?
Fixed gears—brakeless, single-speed bicycles in which the only gear is locked in place on the back hub, so that the rider reduces speed by pedaling forward at a slower rate—have long been a staple of New York messengers. In the last 10 years or so, the urban-cowboy quality of riding without brakes, as well as the bikes' simplicity, has made fixed gears, aka "fixies," an increasingly common hipster accessory and a growing part of global urban style.
Irony also plays a key role, as riders deliberately opt for an expensive, often custom-made ride, with hand-built components, that is less functional than what's available at Wal-Mart. (That is, until March, when even Wal-Mart jumped on the trend.)
It may be this last aspect that's preventing the bikes from catching on in China. Indeed, the anemic fixie scene seems to offer an object lesson in the difficulty of marketing fashion irony here.
"There is a saying in Chinese: 'Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes,' " Juanjuan Wu, a professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Chinese Fashion From Mao to Now, told me. "Hipster fashion only really works by communicating your irony—in other words, someone needs to 'get it.' Hipster irony in dress would most likely be misinterpreted in Chinese society as simple poverty or weirdness."
Nicole Fall, co-founder and trend director at Five by Fifty, an Asian trend consulting firm, agreed. "Consumers need to be in a position to reject norms or feel confident enough about their status and knowledge to be ironic," she said. "Thus a 20-year-old New York hipster can smoke a pipe or drink a really naff drink because it's funny, but for someone in China, many of their equivalent peers don't have the history and past knowledge of trends to understand what has been cool in the past."
Though there are examples of ironic style on display in China—Mao's face, red stars, military regalia are today worn with something less than earnestness—there is also more at stake in young people's fashion choices, making them "less likely to 'play' with their dress in a cynical or ironic manner," Wu explained. They prefer brands that are recognizably luxury—Louis Vuitton, Prada, Bottega Veneta, etc.—over more ambiguous fashions.
A bike is not associated with luxury, no matter how expensive its vintage Italian frame might be.
On the campus of Beijing's elite Tsinghua University, which is jammed with bicycles, most students said they didn't give two thoughts to their ride. "There are very few people in China who think that the bicycle is a cool thing," said Fang He, a senior.
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.
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.
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?"
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.