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Shanghai stories: Bicycling in China
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At the end of the 19th century, there were lots of rickshaws running up and down Shanghai's Bund, but very few bicycles. They haven't been around here as long as you might think. A cartoon in a missionary newspaper in 1880 was the first time many Chinese had even seen a bicycle. And it was a pretty unflattering portrait of a Chinese rider falling off one. Also, all that pedaling was too much like work.

"The Chinese emperor used to regard the bikes that were introduced from western countries as toys and used them for fun," said Guo Jianrong.

When three British cyclists on a round-the-world trip visited Shanghai in December 1897, they drew quite a crowd of fellow riders. But most of them were fellow laowai. By 1920, the post office had equipped its mail carriers with a fleet of bicycles, and the idea was catching on. By the 1930s, bicycles were becoming an affordable means of transportation for ordinary people. Shanghai's iconic Forever bicycle company was formed in 1940.
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Clip from "My Day Off" (1959)
Bicycles played an important part in a 1959 romantic comedy about a policeman who keeps missing his date with a postal worker because he can't get away from serving the people even on his day off. At that point, China was producing about one million bicycles a year.

"Now more than 1.3 billion Chinese have about 500 million bikes, which means almost every family has one. At the beginning of the seventies, people could only buy bicycles with vouchers, and the supply was limited. At that time, a family might use a Phoenix bike as a wedding trousseau, just like a BMW car today."

Guo was in junior high school then, and remembers getting his first bike, a Phoenix 18. In 1994, the Shanghai Phoenix company produced its eighty millionth bicycle. The late 90s changed the way many people here ride on two wheels with the explosion of e-bikes as a step up for people who no longer want to pedal but can't afford or don't want a car. People do still buy pedal bikes, but the new corporate version of Forever has reinvented itself as a nostalgia factory. A Forever that looks old now costs about twice as much as the old ones did when they were new.

Bicycles, with and without motors, are still everywhere in Shanghai, sometimes even in places they're not supposed to be. But the kind of bike has changed in China. Last year, Guo says bike manufacturers made 85 million pedal bikes, mostly for export, and 30 million e-bikes. 

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