Sure, "the Great Downturn may have its first real status symbol" in New York, and that symbol may be $2,000 dollar Dutch bicycles ridden by male models. ("Can the arrival of Dutch bicycles in New York free men to pedal to work in a Gucci suit?" wonder New York Times fashion writers.) But what about, oh, the 99.99% of humankind (women included!) who don't pattern their lives after male fashion fantasies from tiny Manhattan, that island of bursting bubbles and frustrated trust-fund fashion junkies currently creaming their designer jeans, it would seem, over ... discovering the bicycle?
What better way to respond to this bit of Big Apple navel-gazing than to turn our eyes away from from New York—the Shanghai of the USA—and toward the real deal? Toward a city where the bicycle has long ruled the streets and where fashion comes in flavors (and at price points) unimagined by those poor Manhattanites struggling through the "Great Downturn" with their spendy Italian threads and overpriced Dutch wheels? A city where brand-name style comes in many forms, most of them fake, and therefore actually affordable to the masses pedaling to work on their cheap and abundant Flying Pigeons and Forevers (around $50 new and as low as $10 for a serviceable used model)?
So we hit the streets of Shanghai with three Shanghai Style: The Chinese Bicycle and 5,000 Years of Civilized Riding.)
And while the Times claims "This new It object is the glossy black Dutch bicycle, its design unchanged since World War II," anyone who's lived in China for a few years (let alone anyone born and raised here) knows that when it comes to urban cycling that keeps your outfit looking good (enough), Chinese bicycles are the s**t.
They're beater bikes that just can't be beat. In fact, we can't help fantasizing that another year or two of "Great Downturn" might unleash a flood of cheap Chinese bikes on the streets of Gotham as the economy reaches critical mass and New Yorkers really have to try to make ends meet... it might just make us want to move back to Brookyln.
But back to China, which remains zixingche da guo, the Kingdom of Bicycles. Even as nouveau riche Chinese snap up cars as fast as they can and mopeds crowd the bike lanes, the streets are still full of millions of cyclists: Women in high heels on the way to the office, workers in hard hats and suit jackets hauling loads of pipes and bricks, spiky-headed boys in knock-off Nike and Adidas ... along with, as it happens, increasing numbers of expats unafraid of rolling with the Chinese mainstream on classic designs unchanged since the early days of the People's Republic. (In Shanghai, if you want to separate the old hands from recent arrivals, fear of biking is a good indicator; after a few years in the city you truly come to understand what it means to "go with the flow.")
Of course, expats are often charged with romanticizing the "old China" that many of today's Chinese seem happy enough to leave behind, exchanging the brick lanes and common courtyards of Shanghai's down-at-the-heels shikumen or Beijing's hutong for shiny high-rises and American-style suburbs—just as many Chinese aspire to trade in Flying Pigeons for private cars. But we think China should be proud of its cycling tradition. Not only that, but we think China should roll on into the 21st century on the sturdy-enough chabuduo frame of a Forever. The environment would certainly better withstand millions of cyclists than millions of new cars, and we'd hate to see the average slender Chinese blimp up like the stereotypical supersized car-driving American (think of the fashion consequences!).
Furthermore, the city is really best explored by bicycle. Lanes, alleys, food streets, chance encounters—you get far more for your money (and very little of it at that) by bike than by metro, taxi or tour bus. And when it comes to just getting around, traffic in the bike lane often paces increasingly congested auto traffic, at least when you're going just a kilometer or two.
Yes, when it comes to transportation that makes good fashion, budget, environmental and plain old common sense, the Chinese bicycle is indeed the s**t. The features that come standard on the Dutch bicycle are easy and affordable add-ons for your Chinese ride: Back rack, bell and basket? No problem. The all-important chain guard and fenders come standard, of course—it's just common sense. And though we don't envision any NYC fashionistas doing so, donning a $1 plastic poncho and draping it over your bike is a fine way to roll in the rain. We've witnessed many a fashionably dressed Shanghainese woman alight from her cycle during a downpour, stride off in high heels and, once safely inside, appear virtually unruffled by the experience.
But what about thieves? It's true that bike theft in Shanghai is rampant, but it's truer that it's nothing like New York, where the best lock won't keep thieves from cannibalizing a bike, leaving a picked-over frame (perhaps a multi-thousand dollar frame at that).
In Shanghai, it's closer to the Euro ideal of cheap communal transportation, really, just with Chinese characteristics. While New York's city government mulls "a bike share program like the one introduced in Paris last year," Shanghai, in its eminently practical way, has long enjoyed an informal "share" program that works a bit like this: You don't even pretend to lock your cheap beater up, perhaps simply locking it to itself in order to send a mild message that you would really prefer it if your bike remained in place until you returned, but if it didn't, you'd understand. After all, there are a few million other bikes just like it also sitting around virtually unlocked.
Most leave it up to professionals to circulate affordable bikes. The pros scour the city streets, conveniently bringing "stray" bikes together in dirt-cheap used bike markets and you, the lucky consumer, have the pick of not only Flying Pigeons and Forevers, but also more modern Giant designs and a wonderful range of mini fold-ups (don't forget to bargain!). It's all very fangbian, or "convenient," a key element of the biking life—and life in general—in Shanghai and greater China.
Oh, and helmets? We'll just borrow a passage from "Riding the It Factor" (we realize we're being annoyingly Western in our persistent citation of sources, but it was drilled into us in college and we haven't yet been able to shake it). So, straight from the Gray Lady herself, slightly misquoting one James Vicente of Brooklyn: “Anyone can do this. It’s normal. I never ride with a helmet ... even when people are telling me I’m an idiot. Riding a bike should be normal, and you shouldn’t have to wear a funny Styrofoam hat.” Thank you, Mr. Vicente. You might just be Chinese.
Finally, what goes better with a fourth-hand "shared" bike than an ensemble patched together from Shanghai's countless vendors of fake brand names? Add a few cheap tailored items from a fabric market, hop on the old Flying Pigeon, head off to your relatively recession-proof job, and you're ready to ride out the "Great Downturn" with a style and two-wheeled aplomb that residents of both Amsterdam and New Amsterdam are paying way, way, way too much for.