the overlooked ubiquity of bicycles in shenzhen

I have been collecting discarded objects and then photographing them in different sections of Shenzhen, the oldest and largest of China’s special economic zones. This process has (as yet) denied me photo-ops with a Guanyin statue, but helped me see things so common that they hadn’t previously registered as “Shenzhenese”. This bike tire examplifies how what gets overlooked is often the all-too-common (even by folks who define themselves through acts of documentation).

In the early eighties, just after the PRC had opened to the capitalist West, bicycles symbolized the differences between urban China and urban “us”. I remember magazine articles on Beijing and Shanghai that featured images of hundreds of Chinese citizens biking to (or from) work, school, the market. At the time, Shenzhen had just been established and rarely featured in these articles, except as an example of the extent to which China was changing. From its establishment, however, Shenzhen pursued modernization with an eye to non-Chinese cities. Accordingly, the Shenzhen urban plan deliberately excluded bicycle lanes; Shenzhen’s modernity would be defined by car ownership. I’ve heard that by the mid-1990s, per capita car ownership in Shenzhen had surpassed that of Hong Kong. Certainly, the total number of vehicles cruising Shenzhen streets has surpassed the number in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, bicycles remain a common mode of transportation in the city. Many workers still bike and many business depend upon bicycle delivery. Indeed, throughout the city, usually nestled under an overpass, individuals set up bicycle repair shops. For one or two renminbi, a tire puncture can be repaired, breaks tightened, or chains oiled.

Given their exclusion from the urban plan, bikers often compete with pedestrians for passageways through the city. I have often bumped into bikes or been bumped as bikers rush to their next destination. Nevertheless, I didn’t associate bikes with the city. If I’m any example of how folks have come to inhabit Shenzhen, then the municipality’s urban planners have successfully banished bikes and bikers from mental maps of the city. Or rather, bikes and bikers crash into our consciousness only to the extent that they interrupt normal traffic. All this to say that I have been in Shenzhen for ten years, and am just starting to realize how vast the overlooked landscape might be and how misleading these pictures probably are. Consider them evidence of an emerging awarenss of, rather than reliable data about Shenzhen. Pictures, here.

2 thoughts on “the overlooked ubiquity of bicycles in shenzhen

  1. Reblogged this on Shenzhen Noted and commented:

    Celebrating 10 years of noting changes in the urban landscape. These pictures suggest how Shenzhen looked and moved at the cusp of its transition from concrete low rises to glass and steel skyscrapers.

  2. Pingback: bikes. this time with feeling | Shenzhen Noted

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