Ode to the Flying Pigeon

When we first moved into our apartment in Beijing, we found that the previous owner had left, among other things, a copy of a slick design magazine (Wallpaper*). Its pages were a parade of posh restaurants, oddly-shaped buildings, Flying Pigeon logofurniture and gadgets for the well-heeled. Amidst the catalogue of images was a feature on China’s young nouveaux riche that included an overview piece about how wonderful things were in China now that there were all these new things you could buy. Exhibit A of Chinese progress was that ten years ago everyone in Beijing was riding around on clunky old Flying Pigeon bicycles. Now–hallelujah!–you can choose from many different makes and models, from modern 21-speed mountain bikes, to all sorts of variations on the classic one-speed.

That people with money can buy a greater variety of things is all well and good, but an exceedingly narrow definition of national economic success. But let’s leave aside this hollow corporate triumphalism. For I come not to bury consumer capitalism, but to praise the Flying Pigeon! You see, I own a Flying Pigeon, and it’s a great bicycle–it is perhaps the perfect match to the conditions of Beijing. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Flying Pigeons have not gone the way of the Dodo. Far from it. They’re probably one of the most sought-after bikes in Beijing.

When I bought my Flying Pigeon the salesman testified to the quality of the ‘old style’ bikes–banging on the crossbar with a wrench to demonstrate the frame’s toughness, assuring me that the Flying Pigeon was ‘one of the heaviest bikes around, not light like the cheap bikes.’ Okay, sure–he was a salesmen, but the bike is damn heavy. It needed a better lock and a new pedal, so after buying it I took it to a mechanic known to a friend of ours as very trustworthy, and he also expressed admiration for the Flying Pigeon. I like the Flying Pigeons so much, in fact, that I’m on my second one: The first was stolen a few weeks ago; the thief as well, I presume, knew a good bike (and a bad lock) when he saw one.

True, the Flying Pigeon is heavy and slow, but it’s a perfect fit for Beijing. The city is very flat, so there’s no need for very low gears to get you up any hills. The city is also very crowded; going fast is dangerous as the bike lanes are typically very congested, with other bikes, pedestrians, and motor scooters making their way in both directions, and with taxis and with gigantic buses zooming in the from the sides and stopping suddenly to pick up passengers. I have seen many-geared derailleurs on bikes in Beijing; I’ve never seen anyone actually change gears–there just isn’t enough unimpeded pedaling in the city to make high gears (and high speeds) terribly useful to the commuter. The big and heavy Pigeons also suit the style of Beijing traffic, which is to not go fast, but to always keep moving. A heavy bike (especially one with the bar-type rather than cable-operated brakes) does not stop quickly. So, like slow-moving water, you flow around obstacles. It is often counter-productive to stop, because a) no one expects you to, and b) if you do, everyone else will flow around you and you’ll have difficulty getting started again. Slow and steady is the way to go, and the Flying Pigeon is the natural vehicle.

Maintenance is another factor in favor of the Flying Pigeon. Small bike repair outfits, either small storefronts, or mobile shops, are plentiful in Beijing, but adequately maintained bicycles are not. From my observations, most Chinese bicycle owners rarely if ever oil a chain or adjust a brake pad. I don’t know whether this is for reasons of expense, experience or just indifference. The few repairs I’ve had done have varied widely in price, depending mainly on the negotiating skills and patience of the person communicating with the repairman, but perhaps for most Chinese the price is too high. It could also be that paying for ‘repairs’ is seldom worthwhile, for though repairmen are legion, good parts and tools are not. Even at a fairly well-equipped repair shop (with two air compressors and several employees) I’ve seen workers changing tires with a screwdriver and a monkey wrench. Especially at the more common smaller shops, repairs, even if they are cheap, are probably little more than temporary patch-ups.

But whatever the reason, the typical Chinese attitude seems to be that as long as the bike moves forward in response to pedaling it does not warrant any fixing. Rusty chains and creaky cranks are standard; even riding on flat tires is not unheard of. The single-gear Pigeons, whatever their faults, are at least durable in these conditions. Fancier bikes, with perhaps more technical capabilities than the Pigeons when new, are also more difficult to maintain, and are quickly reduced to simpler, Pigeon-like functionality by dust, grime, and lack of attention.

But what about all those new bikes? Isn’t that a sign that given the choice, many Chinese prefer other bicycles to the Flying Pigeon? Perhaps. But many of those new bikes are, in fact, Flying Pigeons. I don’t know which of their models sell the most, but the Flying Pigeon company has survived the transition from socialist economy to socialist-with-Chinese-characteristics economy. Indeed, the company appears to be flourishing. The company, the slow and heavy dinosaur of old, still dominates the Chinese markets, and now exports thousands of bikes abroad.

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