Shanghai Rides

By  Melanie Mehrer February 3, 2011

A Canadian woman discovers a new world inside Shanghai when she buys herself a cheap bicycle.

After living in Shanghai for two years, I decided to go native and get myself a bicycle. My Chinese friend Francis and I found a cheap little navy blue bike at the bike market. It was called a “SanSi - Exquisite Article Bicycle.”

“Francis, how can you translate SanSi?” I asked. Francis looked at the characters and said, “I don’t know—these ones are hard to translate into English. It must mean ‘three-four’—or ‘Three-Death.’”

I paid thirty Canadian bucks for Three-Death. Brand new, including the lock. I realized right away that Three-Death was uncomfortably small, squeaky and not very well put together. But all of a sudden a new world in the midst of this city opened up to me. I never realized that in taxis I missed the chance to be fully immersed in the local Chinese world. At every intersection I stopped with local Chinese on old, rusty bicycles. Some had live chickens tied upside down to the rear tire racks, some were peddling around huge amounts of water bottles. Others looked like they were moving house with stacks of personal items tied and bungee-corded onto all parts of their motorless vehicles.

Soon after I got Three-Death, my peddle came off. “A Chinese make work project!” I thought. No wonder there were bicycle fix-it-guys on every corner!

In three months, the local Fix-it-Guy reattached  both peddles, readjusted the seat, replaced the whole front axel (who would have known the front tire didn’t have ball bearings?!!) and fixed two flat tires. Every time I saw him he would say, “This bike is really crap. How much did you pay for it? You should hope someone steals it so you can buy a better one.”

Fix-It Guy's wish came true and someone finally stole Three-Death. I laughed. That bike was so bad the thief surely saved me from certain death. Bikes are stolen so much around here you need to think of them as being rented, really.

Some of my friends think I’m insane to keep buying bikes when they get stolen so much. But the truth is, it’s a special kind of freedom to ride a bike here. I feel like I’m part of the local crowd—breaking out of the expat bubble that many foreigners learn to be content in while living in Shanghai. I save money on taxis (that I can later spend on bicycles) and I actually get around much more quickly. Strangely enough, just the bird’s eye view of being off the sidewalk allows me to feel like I’m experiencing a whole new city.

And I get to practice my Chinese on Fix-It-Guy. Though with my new Giant, I have little reason to stop to visit him now, so we are back to smiles and waves. Oh well. I’m sure if my new locks ward the thieves away for at least a decent amount of time, I’ll pop a tire and we may just get another chance to chat.

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