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Travel Tales and Short Stories: The Bike Man

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by Nicholas Klar

As one marches relentlessly and upwardly through the social strata one sign that you have 'made it' is that you have 'people'. You like to get on the blower and talk to 'my accountant', 'my lawyer', 'my broker', and sometimes even 'my wife'. Ex-pats in Shanghai tend to have a whole different lot of 'people' and I have recently gained my first 'person' - a 'bike man'. He is a cheery little man of uncertain age who, come sun, rain, or snow, shelters under an umbrella on the footpath opposite my apartment block ready with a pump, spanner or (in worst case scenarios) a hammer.

You see, China is still the land of the bicycle. In a city of around 15 million people the authorities have wisely decided to limit car ownership. For my own personal sanity and safety I am glad that the cadres have decided on such a wise policy, thus drastically reducing both pollution and my chances of escaping Shanghai traffic alive and/or in one piece. But I digress - the traffic in Shanghai is a whole topic by itself for another time.

It must be said here that I love riding my bike. I fell in love with mountain bikes in 1992. I was living in California at the time and everybody was riding them. Considering the terrain of the campus where I was studying this was not surprising. I acquired my first mountain bike through a back scratching deal with a friend who was shortly to embark on an internship to Ireland. I simply had to go to her ex-boyfriends place, break his thumbs, re-arrange his face, then steal her bike back. Okay, that's a lie. I just had to give him the impression that I was the new ardour in her life, and that her bike was now a required commodity which I would be minding for her. Fortunately he was a good six inches shorter than me so he didn't have any qualms about that. He was also pretty spun out on some illegal substance when I knocked on the door. He probably thought the next day, "Hey, like, where's the bike man?".

From there, it was back to Adelaide, then onto the Snowy Mountains (Australia), and next a posting in the Japan Alps - all excellent locales for pushing a bike around. Shanghai is a different kettle of fish, but I doggedly remain in the saddle.

After a few weeks here I obtained (in return for a donation to charity) a second-hand bike in not so reasonable condition that used to belong to an ex-teacher at the school. I asked one local 'bike man' to fix up the various problems and after a cursory lick of oil and pumping of the tyres proceeded to play the game of 'screw the foreigner' for payment. Fortunately a couple of Chinese speaking students happened past and came to my aid. The resulting scene turned into a form of oriental street theatre, where locals gathered, shouted, and took sides between the students and the repairman - with me standing bemusedly off to one side. I actually was willing to pay the money and just leave but the gathered crowd was enjoying the spectacle and having none of that. Having finally paid half the initial asking price I rode off, only to have both tyres nearly flat again by the time I reached home.

However, every cloud has a silver lining, for the next day I was to meet my 'bike man' for the first time. He patiently waited through my English explanation and I patiently waited through his reply in Chinese. However, he fixed all of the problems with a smile and at an amazingly small price. He has continued to patch my bike as things continue to fall off - which they do regularly. On odd days some of his friends, such as my newly acquired 'shoe repair man', sit me down on a stool and yarn and laugh with me in Chinese, while I struggle through my phrasebook. It seems by last week that I had chalked up enough bonus points to earn my first free bike wash. This took him a good 15 minutes and he steadfastly refused any payment for it. As I cycle out the gate most mornings he will be sitting there and give me a wave and a smile - a shining light of the real Chinese nature, faraway from the tourist traps and foreigner hangouts, that I am coming to so admire.

Till next time...

A postscript: From time to time the local authorities clamp down on various 'illegal' activities - counterfeiting, prostitution, bribery, satellite hook-ups, money changers etc. Some times they also see the need to clean up the informal economy - those who ply their trade on the streets without permits such as food stalls, shoe repairers, key cutters...and the bike guys. So it was one day that the police swept down our street fining vendors and confiscating tools of trade. Our poor little bloke was caught and never recovered. For a while he struggled on with only a bike pump but you can't make much of a living pumping up tyres at only 2RMB (US25 cents) a time. And so one day, like many others, he just wasn't there anymore - and our neighbourhood is all the poorer for it...

This article is part of a series relating to our lives abroad. For more articles click here

Further related reading by the same author: Time Warps, Broken Dreams and Endless Greenery / Ode to my Jitensha

© 1992-2006, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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