Words and photos by Matt Moir
Pundits and politicians from all over the globe like to talk about the metaphoric rise of China. Cui, a 51-year-old bicycle repairman, has had a front row seat.
On a hot, humid June afternoon, Cui is sitting on a toolbox under an oversized beach umbrella. Tools are spread across his section of sidewalk near a busy intersection. Cui is the proprietor of a sidewalk bicycle shop in southwest Beijing.
“The area has changed so much. Business is,” he pauses, “OK. Before I came to Beijing I was a farmer in Henan, but I didn’t make a lot of money. It was seasonal work and it wasn’t consistent.”
In a typical day, Cui helps seven or eight customers. He charges 20 yuan (about $3) for a tune-up, and earns about 20,000 yuan per year. It isn’t a lot of money—only about $3,000—but it’s enough, for now, to support himself, his wife and two children.
But can businesses like Cui’s survive in modern China? Beijing and other large cities across the country are rapidly modernizing, and more Chinese are embracing a North American-style car culture. The reality is that Cui’s enterprise and other makeshift bicycle repair shops face an increasingly tenuous future.
China was one of the 20th century’s great cycling societies. During the 1950s, a bicycle—along with a watch, a radio and a sewing machine—was considered one of the “Four Big Things” for young families to own. As recently as 1986, 63 percent of the population used bikes as their primary mode of transportation, according to the Beijing Transport Research Center.
Today, China has the world’s second largest economy and a middle class more than 100 million strong. Beijing and its car-clogged streets are now home to the most billionaires (100) in the world, and even a cursory tour of the city reveals an obsession with luxury goods.
Bicycles don’t really fit into this materialist landscape. Research indicates that less than 14 percent of Beijingers in 2013 used bikes as their primary mode of transportation. In fact, the attitude of some newly wealthy young people toward bikes might be best encapsulated by the now-famous quip —“I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle”—uttered in 2010 by a young woman on a television dating program.
It’s in this difficult climate that entrepreneurs like Li attempt to eke out a living.
Li operates a sidewalk bicycle shop beside a looming, four-story high school in south Beijing.
The 40-year-old native of Hunan province used to manage a traditional bike shop in a different part of town, but the government bulldozed the plaza in which the store was located to make space for development. Because Li is a migrant from a different province, he was not offered any compensation by the Beijing government when he lost his job.
He was, however, given the opportunity to choose a location for his own business. He chose a stretch of sidewalk outside the school because he thought students would ride their bikes to school everyday. He didn’t realize that most of the students lived in an on-campus dorm.
Li says he usually works 13-hour days “rain, shine or snow,” and that he “doesn’t mind” breathing Beijing’s notoriously poor air, day after day.
Customers, however, are becoming increasingly scarce.
“Business is not good. There are more cars and taxis and people don’t ride bikes as much as they used to. And the government doesn’t subsidize my business,” says Li, who also has a wife and two children to support. Beijing’s obsession with modernization has pushed sidewalk and street vendors from the city center to the city’s periphery. There is a sense among locals that these small businesses, whether bicycle shops or food stalls, don’t fit with the image city and federal officials want to project for China’s capital, but some experts see vitality in sidewalk entrepreneurialism.
Zhixi Zhuang is a professor of urban planning at Toronto’s Ryerson University. She considers a thriving street vendor scene as an opportunity to build a sense of community in China’s increasingly dour urban centers but questions whether city planners see things the same way:
“They are surviving right now, but when it comes to the future for those street vendors or small retailers, it goes back to that big question: How do governments see the value of public space? Do they want everything very tidy, very bland … only a symbol of the administrative power or government authority? Or do they want to see people there and enjoying themselves?”
On a sweltering afternoon in late June, Cui tinkers away on the brakes of bicycle that looks like it saw its best days a generation ago.
While he works, he answers questions about the future of his industry and his country. Asked if he thinks working sidewalk bike shops will exist a decade or two in the future, Cui simply shrugs.
“This type of work can’t last forever,” he pauses, “but in China, anything is possible.”Tweet Print