Chinese Fixed Gears (article from

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Irony-resisting Chinese bicyclists have skipped the fixed-gear trend that has swept the rest of the world.
By J. David Goodman
Posted Wednesday, April 21, 2010, at 2:22 PM ET

A non-fixed-gear student rider on the campus of Tsinghua University, Beijing. 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.

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?

Nie Zheng performs a track stand on his fixed-gear bike in a high-end shopping plaza in Beijing’s Central Business District.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.

An homage to cycling style at Ines Brunn’s shop, Natooke, in BeijingStill, 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?”

A rare sight: Fixed-gear bikes for sale in a Beijing bike shopEven 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.


"There is a saying in Chinese: ‘Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes,’ [/quote]
china gets me.

ITT China doesn’t get irony


tzu sing! come hither! tell us about mainland china!

china still cool, you pay later, later!

ITT Apparently a 40 year old man was a kid 3 years ago

No one needs to import “Fixed Gear Culture” to China. We have been fed western culture for long enough now. Why can’t we just have our own?
I tend to be grossed out by westerners that want to come here and teach Chinese people how to view the world.
We don’t need a monoculture world as that is the trend already.
I am all for people riding and loving bikes. But there is a big difference when money is pumped into marketing to sell kids the latest fixed gear craze. Organic growth is good, marketing hype and fashion trends obviously not.
Another side of me feels that Chinese people have been poor enough for so long. Let them enjoy the fruits of capitalism for once before you tell them they are wack for driving a car. This is something they looked forward to and worked so hard for. They can now drive to work in a rainy day in the comfort of a sedan. Save irony for those that have been spoiled by abundance and opulence.
I understand the beauty of commuting on a bicycle in all weather conditions, but how are you going to explain this to a guy that came up from poverty to enjoy a fucking car? You can’t and I don’t think you should and you damn well shouldn’t judge them for it.

There is a HUGE difference with selling people the idea that bicycles, tho utilitarian, can also be something you love and you take pride in. Versus ironic hipster culture bike.

I consider myself mostly Chinese. But people here on the Mainland don’t. Culturally speaking I am as much western as I am Chinese so I really can’t speak for “my peoples”.

I realize how hypocritical it is that I speak against fashion and marketing trends as I have obviously capitalized from it. Ah we can’t all be perfect.

deleted for off topic tangent.

Vey interesting, Tzusing. Thanks.

One of the dudes from this “scene” came into Wright Brothers a few months ago. He was kind of a douche.

Why does a specific drivetrain have to be associated with ironic fashion? I still don’t get that.

I like Tsuzing’s take though.

Im really feeling what tsuzing is saying. China is at a different socioeconomic point.
riding a bike isn’t really ironic, it’s kind of insulting people who are finally getting a chance to enjoy some of the nice things and luxuries we’ve had for a while here on our side of the globe.

Biking is great, and getting passionate about bikes is great, but i’d equally hate to see cultural transplantation occurring. I’m all for China retaining it’s own unique identity. I’m a little saddened at their love of Western “luxury goods” which are often third rate outsourced garbage, however brand identification is a strong thing, and in order to succeed in that market I guess that’s what you need.

ines brunn selling conversions in beijing???

Very good points, tzusing. You should email them to the author of that article - I didn’t even realize, until reading your opinion, how ethnocentric the piece was.

[quote=tzusing]No one needs to import “Fixed Gear Culture” to China. We have been fed western culture for long enough now. Why can’t we just have our own?
I tend to be grossed out by westerners that want to come here and teach Chinese people how to view the world.
We don’t need a monoculture world as that is the trend already. [/quote]

  • a fucking billion

I was actually going to meet that guy for an interview. But he kept asking me questions about the “fixie” scene in China and I told him i’m one guy riding a fixed gear bike in an Industrial zone, which really isn’t much of a scene i guess.
I am pretty glad that fixed gear bikes isn’t huge in Shanghai or we’d have a lot of dead Chinese hipsters. What he failed to include in this article is how insane Chinese traffic is VS western cities.
Fixed gear culture didn’t blow up in China because it isn’t time yet. I think it will.
If Goodman wants a real answer to how youth culture works in Asia. Taipei, Seoul and HK have had a fixed gear explosion because of how much they follow Japanese Trends. The Mainland Chinese don’t follow Japanese fashion so much because of one, the language difference and two, because of WWII and the humiliation Chinese people suffered from it. Chinese people are highly nationalistic. What Chinese people do follow is Taiwanese, HK and Korean trends. So I think the fixed gear thing is just trickling over here. Also the chaotic traffic should also be a huge deterrence for most to get on a bicycle here.
At the end it goes like this, Japan copy American trend, rest of Asia copy Japan, China copy rest of Asia. I think this is what Goodman was actually looking for. He came to China when the fixed gear trend was going from Japan to the rest of Asia. Come back again in 3 years and he should be able to find the fixie scene he was looking for.

Author doesn’t really make sense. He says that people ride nice track bikes “ironically”, and justifies this by claiming they are “less functional than Wal-Mart bikes.” For one, Wal-Mart bikes are by and large completely NON-functional, and for two, how exactly is he defining “functional?” The fact that many of us make our livings riding track bikes should attest to how functional it is for the type of riding they’re being used for.

Also, he’s contradicting himself. Right after calling owning an expensive track bike “ironic”, he proceeds to say something about “hipsters” appearing poor, and how this ironic faux-poverty would be construed as real poverty. So apparently owning an expensive track bike instead of a Wal-Mart bike makes us look “poor”, because of the author’s idea of what “functionality” is, and a track bike’s apparent lack thereof.

Yeah, the logic is all over the place in his article.