Tianjin, China: heard of it? Probably not, right? Tianjin is famous for being the largest city no one has ever heard of. This city of over 9 million is larger than London, and is the 30th largest city in the world, but yet it doesn’t seem to even be a blip on the international radar. It is common for people here to have to say to foreigners “I live near Beijing.” Can’t imagine Londoners saying “I live near Paris” can you? (It’s the same comparative distance away). I guess that says something for how freakin’ big the big cities in China are, that a city of over 9 million is only the fifth largest city in China and doesn’t cause even a ripple on the international scene.
Ha! Ok, here is a quiz: which cities of the following are real, and which ones did I just make up?
It’s a trick. All of those are real Chinese cities, so hat’s off if you knew this. Also, all are at least twice as large as Los Angeles. Shanghai is over four and a half times larger than L.A. So, maybe that might explain why a city larger than London can be ignored by all of these other biggie’s crowding the scene of difficult to pronounce Chinese mega-cities.
What brings me here to Tianjin -which is a question a lot of people here seem to view as worth asking– is bikes. Tianjin at one point had the highest percentage of people riding their bikes ever in the history of the entire Universe.
And it was phenominally great too. Lake Baikal great. For comparison purposes, the largest major city in the United States with the highest percentage of trips conducted by bicycle is greener than green Portland, which is 6% of all trips. Copenhagen is the largest major European city with the highest bicycle modal share of 32%. And what was Tianjin like just as recently as the early 1990’s? 79%. There are still a lot of bikes here, but have you heard? Things are changing in China.
I think it is all but impossible to be ignorant of the fact that China is modernizing, and rapidly, but frankly despite trying to understand this before coming here, I still didn’t properly understand. I essentially understood this to mean, ‘yes, China is quickly becoming up to first-world Western Standards, but, asterix, it’s still has a lot of catching up to do.’ In a lot of ways I have found Beijing and Tianjin to be equal to or even in some ways far more modern than America or Europe.
A really impressive graduate from Hendrix College (the Harvard of America) has helped me in preparing for being in China, and I explained my shock upon arriving on how modern everything is in the major cities. He told me that was a common American viewpoint. He would have American film makers asking for places to film that are storyboards right out of China 50 years ago, or even 300 years ago, as they imagine China being like now; while Europeans are looking to film in, for example, the state of the art train stations or next to the bullet trains that are everywhere.
At first in coming to China I was really dismayed. I knew bicycles were being replaced in the streets of China, but it would be like saying in the late 1800s buffallo were being “replaced” from the Great Plains. For comparison purposes, below are two pictures decpicting rush-hour in Beijing.
One is a historical photo I stumbled across from 1984. The other was taken by a friend while we were in Beijing. See if you can spy any differances.
I’ve been hunkered down a lot lately trying to do some background reading, so I’ve been sneaking into the Holiday Inn, about a mile from my unheated, septic-smelling hostel with no windows. The Holiday Inn is the only place I have been able to find that has the not-so picky trifecta of being heated, with wifi, and preferably with a comfortable chair.
It is interesting being here in China seeing how a lot of western companies have reinvented themselves for China. One good, and frustrating example (for a guy who hasn’t had pizza since October 18th. 137 days and counting.) is Pizza Hut and Papa John’s, both of which have glass chandeliers in em’ and the cheapest pizza (that isn’t the size of a tea saucer) is $25. No thanks. Another example, and the source for this digression, is Holiday Inn, which has fashioned itself into a 5 Star Chain, where a cup of coffee costs over $6. Business aside, that’s a crime against humanity charging that much for a cup of black gold and life-giving pizza.
In addition to heat, wifi, and a good chair, the Inn also has a spa with wonderfully poor security out front, a handy international business center, and a lot of the other unnecessary accruements associated with luxury. Behind the Holiday Inn is a bajillion year old Buddhist temple whose sign says it was nearly completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but will “once again extend all the way to the river.” Never mind the fact that there is a mall and a forty-story Holiday Inn-the-way.
I figure they probably think that if they, as an institution, can survive foreign occupation, wars, communism, and the cultural revolution, Holiday Inn too will come and go. All things must pass.
In addition to having a comfortable chair (a surprising rarity I am finding in China), heat, and wifi, the Holiday Inn also has staff that speaks varying degrees of English (also a rarity). It doesn’t always work though. For instance, I went up to the conceirge, and speaking as sloooooowly as I could and enounciating as best as I could I explained very clearly “I. have. gone. to. the. post-office. for. three. days. and. while. they. are. open. they. are. not. accepting. any. mail. No. one. speaks. English. there. Could. you. please. explain. to. me. where. I. should. go. to. mail. this. letter?” He then looked at me, and said, “so… what you are saying is you want to buy a new car.”
When not trying to buy a new car, my book-worm antics in the Holiday Inn have pretty clearly shown me that despite what I intuitively thought, the rise of auto-ownership is not due to the rising affluence of the middle class in China. While this recent affluence is a sliver of an issue, going back to the demise of the bison metaphor, this would be like saying the downfall of the animal is due to their susceptibility to 22 caliber bullets. True, but…
In a nut-shell, the Government has been prioritizing car-ownership for a myriad of bullheaded reasons. Foremost, is a desire to model China into the world’s Detroit, and has consequently prioritized domestic car-ownership as a way to stimulate profitable domestic car production.
Many of the major cities (city governance isn’t a giant monolithic centrally controlled hand, but rather each city has a lot of leeway in its transportation policies) have also chosen to accomodate the dramaticly congesting streets in their cities by removing the bicycle lanes and replacing them with driving lanes for cars. Prioritizing cars over bikes in these mega-crowded mega-cities is obviously perilous, especially when you consider that a car takes up 9 times the urban footprint as a person traveling by bicycle, and there just isn’t that room to give in these huge cities.
Another factor in the Government’s frequent adversarial role in bicycles is prestige. It’s sadly ironic that in many U.S. and European cities mayors and urban planners are wishing their cities were more like here in China –compact, with imense levels of cycling– while Chinese officials as a whole view bicycle use as backwards, the way we’d imagine traveling around a U.S. city in a mule-drawn wagon. The general consensus amongst Chinese policy makers here is the only good public transit is mass-transit: busses, subways, and anything shiny and new (and preferably expensive) like they’re doing over in America and Europe. China is building a freakish amount of subways, for instance. This year alone the country is going to add 900 miles of subways at the relatively cheap cost of $100 million USD per mile. Yet, as one news article reads “However, despite its rapid expansion, Beijing’s underground transportation system has not been able to solve the city’s traffic problems as subway services are still considered insufficient in the crowded downtown areas.” Ditto with the buses China is likewise prioritizing, although to a slightly lesser extent.
The problem with buses is that they work great when they work, but if they have to travel through congested roads, they get held up just like any other Joe-schmoe alone in their car. (This is excluding BRT). While China has one of the lowest percentages of car-ownership out of any major nation in the world, even the few that do own cars are enough to throw a wrench in the cogs of inner-city trafic flow. To give you an idea of just how many vehicles there are, in Beijing, China’s second-largest city, there are over 2,000 cars added to the streets per day, and over 120,000 taxis operating at any given time. If present rates continue it is consensus that even if substantial roadworks continue throughout the country they can’t keep up with forecasted auto-growth.
And this is certainly a problem. It wasn’t too long ago in the news when a traffic jam outside of Beijing shattered the global record for a traffic jam by lasting for over nine straight days, and stretching over 100 km. There is a common refrain in sustainable transit advocacy that addressing traffic congestion by building more roads is like dealing with being overweight by loosening your belt buckle. It alleviates the symptoms of the problem, but ignores and worsens the situation long-term. For obvious reasons, the most important one being “we can’t function without them” many of the major cities in China are once again reluctantly returning to bicycles.
And so that is the traffic-snarling brouhaha I’ve found myself here in Tianjin. And while at first I thought the bicycle in China was slowly going the way of the buffalo, the analogy doesn’t hold. I guess unless people start electrifying bison. Here there are still a lot of bicycles, although no where near what that historical photo of Beijing shows, or what it was like in its not so distant hey-day. But bikes here have taken a differant form since their peak about twenty years ago.
I had heard of the rising popularity of electric bikes, or e-bikes, in China and seen plenty of models before, but here in China most e-bikes are completely different. Basically, there are two models. The first kind looks just like a bicycle, it can be pedaled, and the only difference is it has a frisbee-sized motor attatched to one of the wheels. What I had never seen before until coming here is the ever-present “scooter-style electric bicycle” as the trade-industry calls em’. Basically they are mopeds that are electricly powered, can cruise at 30 mph, and a lot of times these “bicycles” don’t even come with pedals.
Some even have three wheels, look like golf-carts and have canopies ontop, with a back row of seats. The question worth asking is “are these even bicycles?” I mean, people don’t pedal them, and they don’t even resemble bicycles!
The obvious answer is “no”, so the Government concluded, “yes”, these electric, speeding behemoths are bicycles. The Chinese government didn’t really know how to classify these things for years, and in some major cities they were prioritized while in others they were banned. (There are a lot of pros and cons on both sides). It was only in 2007 that the Chinese government “decided” on how to handle these scooter-style e-bikes, which was, really, to not regulate them at all. (I presume this is because the mentality of the Chinese government is pretty laid back and easy going). No restrictions on size, hardly any restrictions on maximum speed (which are ignored by manufacturers, riders, and regulators alike). The e-bike has been one of those ideas –like the flying car– that have been kicked around for ages, but never really took off.
China began pursuing the technology behind e-bikes as early as the 1960s. The economics and performance didn’t make it practical, but with the market opened in China, and phenomenal advancements in battery technology, and rising income levels, these bikes can be had for a cool $200-$500 clams. The government also made the development of e-bikes a national technological priority for the nation in the Ninth five-year plan, back in the late, late 1990’s (too lazy to fact check the date at this point).
And, considering in a lot of cities, like here in Tianjin, mobility studies find you can get to where you want quicker by e-bike than public transport, biking, or walking, and car-ownership is –thankfully– out of reach for most people, e-bikes make a lot of sense.
The rate at which these electrified bikes have been embraced is phenominal. It is being reffered to as the largest and quickest revolution in the history of how people move. These bikes weren’t really that popular, selling only a few hundred thousand up until 2002, which considering the size of the Chinese market is nuthin’. Then came 2003 and the ideal marketing event occured for these e-bikes: S.A.R.S.! Yup, Sudden Accute Respritory Syndrome, which was touted to be the global plauge of the new millenium. Considering SARS’ rapid rise in China, people weren’t really as excited to sit in crowded subways and buses vertically spooning with contagious strangers. Go figure. So, with an affordable e-bike as an alternative that can get you to work just as fast and without unsavory contagions, the number of e-bikes sold skyrocketed to 45 million in a manner of a few years. I don’t think even excel could graph it. It’s pretty phenomenal, and no marketing campaign needed.
So, while SARS led the mass-exodus away from public transport back to “bikes”, e-bikes haven’t been all that and a bag of potato chips like Chinese policy makers thought when they prioritized em’ just a few years back. The non-existent regulation has resulted in very-large and heavy bicycles careening in traditionally bicycle and pedestrian zones, and the number of injuries has skyrocketed correspondingly with ownership. Furthermore, the batteries have a huge chunk of lead in em’, which after two years gets tossed into a landfill that can’t handle it and ground-water seepage is an issue (not as bad as the radioactive water in Arkansas from fraking, but it ain’t good either). Secondly, the loaf-of-bread-sized batteries are charged from electricity that originates primarily from coal-based power-plants. These are both issues when you consider the number of e-bikes in less than ten years has risen to 45 million. So the word on e-bikes? I don’t know if there is one. They’re a mixed bag. They’re far-worse than mass bicycle use, but also far-better, more practical, and economical than these people otherwise clambering into cars, buses, and subways. Get back to you on that one.
On my second to last day in Tianjin I took a cab to the darkness on the edge of town, where children, delivery trucks, and dogs run amok in the streets, and where the city’s factories are. It was actually kind of refreashing to see the urban funk of Tianjin because up until that point everything I had seen was spotless and modern. It would be like going to New York City without seeing any rats in the subways, scary people, or smelly alley ways: there is just something quintessentially “city” about these less than savory experiences, that without it, it just feels like one of the fake streets of Disney World.
Anyways, I took this journey to get my shoes dirty and to see the Flying Pigeon factory. It might be disappointing to learn they are not manufacturing pigeons, which would have been cool to see, but it is instead The bicycle of China, to the point that the government has taken the now private company’s namebrand as a national heritage namesake. (I’m not sure what it means, but it sounds important, and people at Flying Pigeon are really scary-proud of that). The history of the company is pretty interesting. It’s a Tianjin-based company, and basically right when the dust settled and the weapons were put down after the Communist Revolution, Mao thought it dandy to produce bicycles as they are egalitarian and practical, and one of his underlings liked this small manufacturer in Tianjin. So, with that rather arbitrary support the company was chosen to manufacture all the bicycles for China. The name was supposed to be a symbol of peace, but it was translated wrong from “dove” to “pigeon” and so, to speak, they just rolled with it, and, since then, this bird has flown.
What these bicycles meant to people is tough to compare. I’ve seen some documentries interviewing Chinese from the late 1980’s, and one guy menionted how he had the best of the three kinds of bicycles that Flying Pigeon made, and that essentially made him a chick-magnet, like being in high school and having a Ferrari. To get any of these company’s bicycles would take over a year’s wage, and at least a year and a half wait. Yet, the bicycles once delivered, well, delivered. They were built to last for life, and low-and-behold, while little else of pre-me-being-born Urban China exists, these indestructible tanks are still rolling, and despite all the antagonism from the government at large, in mass-numbers.
The factory itself was really fascinating if you view it as a microcosm of the changes that have transpired in China’s recent history. Whereas only a few years ago the company had a complete monopoly over China’s 500 million cyclists, and was state-run, it is now privately run and their domestic market share has shrunk to around 3% (which still ain’t bad).
The company also found their model T approach to bike making, which is essentially “you can have any bike you want as long as it weights two tons and is black” wasn’t winning back their lost slice of the market. So, Flying Pigeon rapidly tried to get their hands on the pulse of bicycles in China, and in a few short years they had gone from having only three models of bikes (which were essentially two of the same bike, and one with a step-through frame for the lady-comrades), to having over one hundred models of bicycles, with 27 folding bicycles rapidly introduced in 2006 and more models (about 30) of electric bicycles quickly to follow.
The factory itself is interesting too. You may have read about the crazy building boom in China, which is really tough to convey the immense scale of it. One of the major causes to the boom is that the realestate system under socialism is bananas from a capitalist standpoint. While under socialism it makes total sense to have the former largest bicycle factory in the world located in the heart of the city as close to its thousands of workers as possible, under capitalism this is like General Motors finding it prudent to build a gigantic auto assembly plant in the heart of Manhatten. A lot of urban reshuffeling ensued, and where the old Tianjin Flying Pigeon plant was is now a brandnew central business district of the city with sky-scrappers and banks, and banks and sky-scrappers.
The company itself was really interesting in that all that I’ve seen and all that I’ve read on the evolution of bicycles in China was encapsulated in the dreary concrete caverns of the assembly halls. The shift from socialism to capitalism and the rise of purchasing power was evident in the tons of assorted bicycles on display. Likewise, the once formidable army of thousands of employees is now a slim payroll of less than 600. Yet, the roots of the company are quickly evident, from countless pictures of Mao with a bike, to various American and European leaders being given a Flying Pigeon (the original Bush was the most recent to get a sweet set of wheels. The offer was not extended to me). Also, the new factory has two assembly halls now; one for bicycles and one for e-bikes. Even the size of the factory was interesting to contrast. The old, epic building was famous for being the closest humans have ever gotten to manufacturing almost all of a bicycle under one roof (bicycles are notoriously complex to manufacture, despite their simple parts. An average bicycle has over 1000 unique parts). While the old factory had to import only very few parts to assemble its three bikes, the new Flying Pigeon factory only does assembly, and contracts out the rest of production.
What else to report on life in Tianjin? Aside from an entertaining adventure having a sword I was given be confiscated by train-station security who were doing corny ninja-poses with it (I hope they’re playing with it still) while their supervisor was very displeased with them and refused to let me take a photo, there are a few other entertaining events to report:
Other highlights have been funky-street food. I didn’t think I was much of a person to have “a line” concerning food, but I’ve found here that I do have “a line” seperating animals that are typically friends from animals typically food.
Nonetheless, snake was a cool snack, and on one major food market in Beijing I saw a whole medly of “huh?” food. Sea urchin. Grass Hopper. Scorpion. Sheep Testicle-Kebabs. Cockroaches. Sea Horses. And a few things that are not appetizing as well.
Food is a continual source for adventure here. Even when I think I know what I am getting, I often don’t. On one of my first days in China I went into a restaurant and I saw a picture of the local speciality duck fillet. The picture showed a tiny serving –about the meaty-equivolent of three slices of deli meat. I was peckish, so I ordered this as well as an appetizing picture of a medium-sized bowl of noodles. The noodle dish came out first, and it was a mound of noodles about the size of a football. The duck came second, and was served on two platters, replete with toppings and garnish. Looking around I realized that I was in a restarunt-type where families order one meal for the whole table, and my “family of one” just opted to order two hearty meals. As a life-long member of the Clean Plate Club, it was difficult leaving the job unfinished, though I did my best, just to not let the waitstaff think I didn’t intend to order enough food to serve 8 hungry people.
(At the point when this entry was begun) it is Lunar New Years, and the city feels like it is in a war-zone. And, oddly enough, I am the only person who seems on edge. While when some 10 year-old boys launch a noise-making firework that sounds like a cannon-blast only a few meters from us, I am practically on the sidewalk thinking “INCOMING!“, while the octogenarian next to me didn’t even blink. New Years is interesting. And never-ending. About a week in I wanted to point out that if they didn’t wind it up quickly, the year would be about done, so dammit, things should start opening back up. My inner-Scrouge nature was pretty-short lived though. The first day of New Years was amazing. I went walking for a couple hours throughout the night in Tianjin and the skyline was aglow with massive fireworks lighting up the skyline from every angle. It was beautiful, and on a scale of a massive fourth of July celebration in a major U.S. city, but for hours and occuring everywhere at once. And the last part, location, is a bit of a concern. Admitedly, it does look pretty freakin’ awesome seeing a huge firework explode green embers off of the glass facade of a fourty-story high rise, but you have to reckon it’s probably not the smartest of ideas to have millions of people setting off explosives in their pajamas (often slightly inebriated) adjacent to skyscrappers. There is actually a pretty good ancedote about this…
CCTV, the Chinese controled telivision building in Beijing, is an amazing, modern building and is one of the landmarks of the city. But in a fitting example of censorship, last year on Chinese New Years CCTV lit off fireworks, and presumably things didn’t go as planned because they blew up the building next door. Woopsies-poopsies. And the best part? They didn’t even cover it in the news, even though there was, and still is, a hulking charred skeleton some thirty stories in the air right next to it. Foreign pundits pointed out that not only did CCTV create the biggest news story of the New Year, but they also failed to cover it.
The rest of New Years is pretty low-key, and very family orientated.
Consequently, not much on public display for me, but on my walks I would take a couple of times a day I cross a part of the frozen-over river where people pray over some little eel-fish and then “free” them by throwing them in a hole in the ice. This is near the ferris wheel bridge. I think this is a good contrast between Western New Years and Chinese New Years: We don’t throw eel-fish in ice-holes.
Going back to CCTV, censorship of the news doesn’t affect me here, because the government’s policy is, apparently, it doesn’t matter if it is in English cause no one here is going to read it anyways. (That should give you some idea on how tough it is coming across English speaking people here). What does affect me is the government’s censorship of sports.
For the entire NFL season I wasn’t able to see a single game, and I was darned if I was going to miss the Packers in the Super Bowl. The game wasn’t on telivision, so my only option was to find a sports bar to go to at 6:00 am. In Tianjin, a city of over 9 million, larger than London, how many sports bars do you think there are? One. Nonetheless, it was a fun and odd experiance. I hadn’t been around anywhere near that many Americans since I left the States over seven months ago. Watching the Super Bowl in the early morning is an odd phenomenon. The way the American ex-pats decided to handle it can be broken into two camps. The first can be classified as coffee drinkers. The second group could be classified by “F’ it, it’s the Super Bowl.
I’ll have another.” For the second group it was popular dicussion amongst the more hydrated what time they were going into work after that (it was monday morning our time). One man was a very resectable Packers fan and to celebrate set off a bunch of firecrackers to celebrate, ala` Chinese New Year. At halftime a group of Chinese photographers came in to take pictures, of what I could only presume could be classified as “Americans in their natural habitat.” In my online slouthing to find this place, the only article I came across on the build-up for the Super Bowl for Chinese viewers was a guide for Chinese to fake understanding football in the horrible event you are invited by your American co-workers to a Super Bowl party.
Another thing that cracks me up here is having strangers coming up to me and asking for their photos to be taken with me. This first happened when I went to Tianamin Square in Beijing. One person asked and it was like a dam broke. Seven group photographs latter and I was out’a there. (Reckon’ it was a combination of my being Western, tall, and having a bomber-hat on). Nonetheless, it is still entertaining, and you have to wonder what they do with the pictures. I mean, when they are showing these pictures to their friends and family do they tell the truth, that this is some stranger I walked up to, or do they make up a story? More importantly, do they have the photo printed onto a coffee mug? I would like to think so.