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Travel Tales and Short Stories: The Bike Man (2003)

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by Nicholas Klar

(Published in Shanghai Daily - 4th December 2003)

Original version (2000) is here

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'. Those of us based in Shanghai tend to have a whole different lot of 'people' and soon after arrival I gained my first 'person' - a 'bike man'. He was a cheery little man of uncertain age who, come sun, rain, or snow, sheltered under an umbrella on the footpath opposite my apartment block ready with a pump, spanner or (in worst case scenarios) a hammer.

Despite its rapidly increasing affluence Shanghai is still the land of the bicycle. For my own personal sanity and safety I am glad, for it reduces 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.

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. 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 'gouge the foreigner' for payment. Fortunately a couple of Chinese speaking students happened past and came to my aid. The resulting scene turned into a now familiar 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 in turn. However, he fixed all of the problems with a smile and at an amazingly small price. He continued to patch my bike as things continued to break or fall off - which they did regularly. On odd days some of his friends, such as my newly acquired 'shoe repair man', sat me down on a stool and yarned and laughed with me in Chinese, while I struggled through my phrasebook.

It seems after several weeks I had chalked up enough bonus points to earn my first free bike wash. This took him a good fifteen minutes and he steadfastly refused any payment for it. As I cycled out the gate most mornings he would 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 have come to so admire.

From time to time the local authorities quite rightly clamp down on various illegal activities - counterfeiting, prostitution, bribery, satellite hook-ups, moneychangers 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 not that the authorities swept down our street, fining vendors and confiscating tools of trade. Our poor little man 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 1 or 2 RMB 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 and Ode to my Jitensha

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

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