The Party ruled the people of Beijing, writes LINDA JAIVIN, but cyclists ruled the streets.
Pedal power in Beijing.
Ilived in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, though Beijing had become my second home. Between a growing number of Chinese friends and my work as a reporter for Asiaweek magazine, my days were crowded with appointments in the capital. Making plans in Beijing was easy; getting around less so. You could hire a driver but you couldn’t yet hail taxis on the street. The metro was just one line that ran in a straight, politically symbolic but relatively useless east-west direction under Tiananmen Square. The buses and trolleybuses, meanwhile, were slow and overcrowded, their interiors a confit of sharp elbows and jostling bodies. One day, a conductor ordered an older woman to yield her seat to me, “the foreign guest”. I protested. The other passengers observed the conductor and me with sullen hostility. The woman, eyes downcast, vacated her seat. I urged her to sit, but instead we both remained standing.
When I bought a bicycle, Beijing opened up. The city’s chequerboard streets, designed in the 13th century, are aligned with the compass points, and the city is flat: a cyclist’s paradise. Beijing would eventually become a conurbation of more than 20 million people, but at the time it was still a manageable city of nine million.
With hardly any traffic, and an unfenced-in Tiananmen Square, the streets seemed luxuriously broad and empty. There were the buses, of course, and horses and donkeys pulling carts of farm produce, as well as flatbed tricycles transporting everything from pig carcasses to sofas, and the odd government or embassy car. Every so often a shiny black Red Flag limousine – a grand affair resembling a 1955 Chrysler – slipped past, conveying some high leader or foreign dignitary behind its darkened windows. The leaders ran the country, but the cyclists owned the streets.
Workers pedalled home, leeks and cabbages strapped to their bikes. Entire families occupied a single bicycle, the kids perched on laps and handlebars. Cycling, I was part of a dynamic mass, one brain cell in a hive mind that choreographed movements and minimised accidents. Whenever one of those long, accordion-hinged buses veered right towards a stop, the organism split fluidly into two flanks – the larger, in wedge formation, overtaking the bus to the left; the smaller, daredevil faction racing to beat the bus past the curb in single file before blending back into the mob.
Off the wide avenues it was even more fun – wending through the narrow hutongs, bumping along dusty unpaved village streets, scattering chickens, to reach the ruins of imperial summer palaces. My bike, a Shanghai-made Phoenix, was the envy of my friends, not least because it was bright blue and easy to spot in the vast bicycle parking lots that were a sea of black. I gave it to a friend in 1986 when I moved to Australia.
I don’t cycle when I’m back in Beijing these days. Traffic jams the streets and a polluted haze often hangs in the air. Most of the hutongs are gone, as are the villages, flattened by bulldozers, their memory buried in the foundations of anonymous high-rises and shopping malls that sprawl outwards towards the Great Wall.
Twenty-first century Beijing has no fewer than 21 subway lines that get you anywhere, including the old summer palaces. There are taxis and Uber-like services. Friends who once envied my Phoenix now collect me in their SUVs. The truth is, cycling was never quite as romantic as I remember. It was always dangerous in winter, when treacherous patches of black ice lay everywhere. It was fiendishly dusty in spring, and the humid heat and sudden downpours of summer left you basted in your clothes.
Yet even today, when I see someone sailing along on their bicycle on a perfect autumn day, a breeze in their hair and joy in their eyes, I remember my Phoenix, as blue as those old blue skies.