As the sun tries its hardest to burn through the thick brown air I look up at the sky and try to remember that it's really blue. I haven’t seen blue sky since my plane flight to Chongqing, deep in the heart of China. Twenty years ago I would have never imagined that I would be here, traveling into what was once a secret and cloistered nation held as tightly from the West as North Korea is today – but everything's different now – just how different? I'm about to discover...
The thick air chokes Chongqing
Chongqing is an ancient city that's located where the Yangtze and Jialing rivers meet. Though this city was settled over 2000 years ago, you'd never guess it by driving through the winding streets of this new Megaloplis in the midst of a construction boom on steroids. Old buildings are giving way to new at a staggering rate of progress, and the city's skyline now easily rivals the largest of America's concrete jungles - but at night, along the Yangtze riverfront, it's lit up like Las Vegas.
One of countless high-rises nearing completion
When I arrived in the humid darkness of a September night and finally made it to my hotel room, I opened the curtains to look out at the city. A good half of it appeared to be blacked out. What was going on here? I discovered that there's no blackout in Chongqing, just construction – on a scale unheard of anywhere in America. The blacked out skyline represented soon to be completed apartment buildings and office towers, and not one or two, but countless mega tower upon mega tower all nearing completion.
Blacked out skyline with dozens of soon to be completed towers
The air has a strange smell to it - a combination of car exhaust, cigarette smoke (everyone smokes everywhere all the time no matter what - "when in doubt, smoke" must be their motto) mixed in with a hint of wood burning - kind of like that hickory smell you get near a campsite on the coast of California. To top it all off mingle in some semi tropical plant odors, as well as the smell of old cooking grease - you get the picture. There's no recycling, but the city is remarkably clean, without a speck of graffiti to be seen. Apparently graffiti artists would rather not spend a night in a Chinese jail. I don't plan on finding out why.
These young, hard working forward thinking people never grew up with the old ways that we in North America associate with China. Instead, the New Generation is offered everything we have and more. Visiting (for the lack of a better description) the technology shopping area in Chongqing I was presented with more gear in one spot than I'd seen in my life. Laptops, MP3 players, cell phones, cameras you name it. Everything unlocked, wide open – CS4 for $20, Windows XP SP3- $1… what's not have have, watch or buy with Bittorent and Blueray burners so easily at hand.
Even China's own government controlled Communist newspaper boasts headlines of "Democracy".
Communist controlled newspaper headlines democracy
This is a city in a Country in the midst of enormous change – expansion, growth, and a handing over from one generation to the next - now struggling to deal with changes in ways of thinking. Old ideas are being shoved out of the way by a barrage of products and services previously unavailable to China's people. As the Communist Government grapples with the impossible task to snarl the freedom of the Internet by blocking sites like Youtube* and Facebook, everywhere you look there is freedom of thought and freedom of expression being practiced. Only an enormous and immediate shift in policy and government will accommodate this flood of information and accompanying wealth and prosperity.
But it's still not America, by any means – the process to enter the country at the Chinese Government's own invitation included a month long myriad of phone calls, lineups, faxes, fees, security checks, rubber stamps and bureaucracy. Once in the country everything seemed normal until our trip to the Chinese equivalent of the Supercross national finals, where the local Police made a demand to take all of our passports, you know - "to keep us safe" they said. Anyone from the Western world knows that you never give up your passport – and after much discussion and explanation that Police in America can't simply take your highest form of identification or question you unless you've committed a crime, all of this went away – but it was a stark reminder as to where we were – and that the Chinese society has a ways to go in dealing with policies such as this.
My translator's named "Cookie" - all the Chinese have picked themselves pretty cool Western names just because they can. She is an absolutely lovely young girl with huge, round enchanting brown eyes. Her English is fantastic, sporting a slight accent from the UK, and her friends and her boyfriend are wonderful and welcoming people. I was met with nothing but openness warmth and acceptance by the Chinese people no matter where I went – in fact I was a bit of a celebrity being one of the only 6'3" tall white guys within a radius of thousands of miles. People on the street took my photograph, or asked to stop and pose with me – funny!
Yet another local snaps my photograph... apparently not too many tall white folk make it through this neck of the woods!
"What the heck am I doing in China?" is what you're probably asking yourself right about now. CIMA2009, China's largest motorcycle show, invited Bikeland and selected International Press to provide coverage. There are only a few of us here (International Press) - Motorcycle.com's Kevin Duke and I are heading up the USA while there are representatives from France, India, Turkey, Brazil, Spain and Portugal to name a few.
Considered the motorcycle manufacturing capitol of China, Chongqing as a region produces about 27 million motorcycles annually. While 15 million of those are exported worldwide, the other 12 million hit the streets in China. Though the current manufacturing sector is comprised mostly of small displacement bikes you’d never buy here in the USA or Canada there is a new call for large displacement high-end products. The current global economic downturn has taken a bite out of Chinese exports, and the shrewd businessmen that they are now have them looking inward to sell into their own giant, untapped market.
A stroll through CIMA2009 is a bizarre experience. Set up in Chongqing's International Convention Center, it occupies about the same space as any IMS show back home, but these guys haven’t figured out that you simply can't win at the game of "if you turn the volume up on your stereo, I'll turn mine up even more"… The noise and the music is deafening as sound system after sound system turned to full volume mashes out clipped, speaker destroying techno beats and rap music that swirl into an undecipherable mess of noise.
You can't hear yourself think, let alone talk about bikes, but you can see that it's all rooted in the excitement of what's going on here – and the show's visitors know it – from gaggles of business guys drooling over the 1198S right down to the stern looking Communist Police officer taking photos of bike babes – these New Chinese are like kids in a candy shop – make that kids with oodles of new found cash stuffed in their pockets.
The bikes in the USA that we'd consider to be counterfeits or "knock offs" turn out to be built in partnership with the established OEM's. Suzuki and Yamaha are here, Benelli is here – and that's because in October of 2005 they were purchased by a Chinese company. Piaggio, Aprilia and Moto Guzzi are now partnered with the Chinese, as is Peugot. The list of Global partnerships with major manufacturers represented at this show is seemingly endless, and that's the message show organizers want to pass along.
At first I believed China was focused on directly penetrating the North American and European markets, but instead it's building partnerships that they're interested in. As China's economy booms and its government continues to embrace openness with the rest of the world, its population of 1.3 billion is ripe for the picking and eager to be marketed to.
I'm told that about ten years ago the Chinese government banned (or limited – this may have been lost in translation) the use of motorcycles – this explains why, when I arrived, I wasn't greeted by the sea of two wheeled machine's I expected – instead, motorcycles are definitely a minority on the city streets – but that's all changing. Unfortunately riders need to navigate a sea of regulations and rules that may or may not ban two wheels from highways, limit their displacement or prevent them from riding altogether. Information is sketchy and even show and government officials can't tell us what's legal and what isn't.
When asked if the industry as a whole would lobby their government for a clear national set of rules that regulated the use of motorcycles to help improve their own industry and sale, we were told that it wasn't yet a priority as the volume of bikes being produced – that 30 million-ish annual figure – wasn't large enough for them to consider it an issue yet. Can you imagine that? 30 million bikes produced a year isn't enough for them to consider it an issue - this is bizzaro land!
I had hoped to ride a bike through the city streets of Chongqing with my helmet cam, but this never materialized. Kevin's (Motorcycle.com) negotiation skills netted him a private ride to the mountains, but my city request never made it past officials as I had no Chinese driver's license – probably just as well, as the flow of traffic in Chongqing makes little sense. If there are any rules of the road (in this country of rules) they don't seem to be followed. Traffic is peppered with vehicles traveling at pretty much every speed - from stopped, to slow, to fast. Traffic circles? Why go around them when you can go right through them? Is the traffic stopped in your lane? No problem, drive in oncoming traffic, or better yet, down the sidewalk. Shit! You missed your turn? No worries, mate - just turn in any direction randomly and honk your horn - it'll all work itself out.
It's your money that's been fueling this nation of over 1.3 billion people, and there's now a pool of ultra rich who are only just discovering brands that you've known for a lifetime. New to them are Harley Davidson & Ducati – and though they've heard of Suzuki and Yamaha – jaws were dropping as people saw the Hayabusa and the R1.
A member of HOG -Beijing Chapter
Owning a Ducati or a Harley in the USA is a bit of a status symbol, so consider what it means when the Government of China slaps a 140% import tariff on imported products like motorcycles in a country where the minimum wage is less than $1 an hour, rent for a decent place is $15 a month in the Big City, and a can of coke only set me back 20 cents.
Keeping that in mind - including the tariff a basic Harley rings out to $30,000 and Ducati is planning on launching their entire model lineup including the Desmosedici here next month. If the cost of a D16 is $60,000 stateside, that'll make it over $130,000 in China – and people will be lined up to buy it. You may be smarting from the recession, but here they're counting their Brewster's Millions and collecting iconic American products is A#1 top of the list for China's new class of successful business people.
"Hang on a minute Jack", you're saying – didn't I just tell you that people were paid peanuts and stuff was cheap here? Why yes, but this ain't the Communist China we all learned about in school. It's now some bizarre Quasi Capitalist society that seems more like it's packed full of hard working, open minded Americans – eager to share their ideas – held up and breaking free from their large and over burdening bureaucracy. And it's their bureaucracy that's probably the only thing holding China back from really taking over the World - there's no shortage of manpower, but there'd just be way too much paperwork and approvals involved. "Take over the World? You don't have the right stamp on that approval form - please drive across the city and line up at the Ministry of Rubber Stamps office with your request letter as well as your proposal letter and your...."
You see – all those things you've bought over the last few decades that are Made in China, from the laptop you're reading this with, to the shoes and socks you're wearing and probably right down to the garlic on your pizza has made a good chunk of people over here Uber-rich. I mean A LOT of people Uber-rich.
Meeting with some of these money laden cool cat bikers was an experience as I sat down for a beer with some members of the Harley Owners Group members from Beijing and surrounding cities (yep – H.O.G. in China) and discovered that it's the sheer volume of people and the scale on which things are done in China that helps make all of this possible.
Everything here is on the extreme end of the scale. Take for example, cell phones. There are several cell providers in China, however it was China mobile who set a real milestone in 2007 when their subscriber base of 300 million (yes - 300 MILLION) surpassed the total population of the United States.
One of the HOG members I chatted with owns four Harleys. As I type this, CNN is on TV in the background (that surprised me – I didn't think their Big Brother would let me watch CNN here) and scrolling across the bottom of the screen reporting that China's automobile sales are spiking at a rate of 2000 cars A DAY.
Wrapping your head around these numbers may be difficult, but the Chinese government is paying attention big time. Rather than looking to export more goods to the faltering Western economies, their message is clear – partner with them to sell your stuff to their people – they have customers who are hungry to buy – and buy and buy.
Motorcycling vs. Communism
In America riding a motorcycle has always somehow been associated with an act of rebellion, whether it's against the system, the cops or just pissing off your Mom and Dad. Motorcycling represents freedom and non-conformity. Riding and enjoying the spiritual aspect of two wheels transcends the boundaries that any law can limit, and motorcyclists know this – so the most significant shift I can see happening in China in their motorcycle industry is this change in thinking, from motorcycling as a rudimentary form of transportation to motorcycling as a form of entertainment - buying bikes to ride, not to get around with.
The act of purchasing a new, imported motorcycle in China is in itself an act of rebellion – the cost of these motorcycles is set so high as to prevent pretty much anyone from purchasing one – the laws so limiting as to where you can ride and how you can ride – that to own a Harley Davidson or a Hayabusa in China is really sticking it to the man.
Don't think that this is a small grass roots movement limited to a select few – it may be in other parts of the world but we're talking about a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people – if only one percent of the population can afford and want to buy a Harley Davidson or a Hayabusa then you're talking 13,000,000 people – that's a lot of bikes and bikers no matter how you slice it. The bikers know this, and so do the OEM's and so does this new generation of Chinese "biker".
You may laugh and think these folk are just living out the script of "Wild Hogs" – that may appear to be the case, but you need to understand the most Chinese people have never even heard of Harley Davidson let alone Ducati – they haven't even seen Easy Rider. A decade ago none of this was here.
Wang Wei, the director of CIMA2009, sat down with me and we talked about motorcycle riding – biker to biker. He recounted his experience as a young man, when he rode his first motorcycle and felt the wind across his face – when he accelerated he described to me how the tree branches along the road seemed to bend and what he saw in front of him formed a tunnel as he accelerated.
What rider hasn't felt this? Experienced the joy and the freedom of the open road – that Zen like moment that each of us can recall at an instant – all motorcyclists have this in common.
Is this in line with a "Communist" way of thinking? Not if you're talking about the kind of Communism I learned about in school.
In the airport in Beijing the television is playing a car commercial – the car is driving down an idealic tree lined country road. The camera pans down to reveal the happy family - the mom driving, child in the back seat and father in the passenger seat. As the car drives past the camera pans around to reveal the golden retriever puppy hanging his head out the window, tongue wagging in the breeze.
If this doesn't tell you where China's at, then nothing will – because as China discovers what we've had for decades – you suddenly realize that they really are at the "Leave it to Beaver" stage, or maybe because they're leaping out of the Industrial Revolution and straight into the future, it'll have to be "The Jetsons". They have a long long way to travel down the that wormhole.
Supercross in China?
#30 rips down the track in Hangdu, but #7 doesn't have anything to worry about
James Stewart doesn't need to move over just yet – I honestly had no idea there was an MX series in China, and by stroke of luck the season final – China's equivalent of the Supercross Finals in Las Vegas - fell on a day of our visit. We were loaded into a bus and driven to the city of Hangdu where a crowd of what looked to be about 10,000 race fans was gathered around a pretty basic MX track set up next to the local Shineray motorcycle factory. Shineray's another Chinese brand of bike who build a few off road products and must compete somewhere in some capacity because they had FIM stickers on some of their products.
Officials stuck what appeared to be an "All Access VIP" Pass in my hands sent me on my way (I found out later that the impressive looking pass simply said "GUEST" but no matter – it worked sufficiently to allow me to walk anywhere I wanted on the track.)
The enthusiasm of the crowd was relatively contained as Cookie explained to me that the announcers were instructing the riders to drive "carefully and slowly" – this of course seems completely counter to what racing is, and might explain the strangely slow pace of the "races" - we all know it's the opposite of what Ricky Bobby would say.
The truth is that any American teen who has a dirt bike would be faster around this track than the riders we watched – but we were in the middle of China, and fast or slow it didn't really matter in my books because they were there doing what we all love.
The Loncin motorcycle factory just outside Congqing
When they told me that Chongqing was the motorcycle manufacturing capitol of China, I wasn't sure what to expect. A trip to the Loncin factory about 10 minutes from town gave me a pretty good idea. Loncin, one of the largest OEM's in China, churns out about 40,000 motorcycles a month from this factory alone. Safety standards appear to be adequate and the factory is clean and well organized. The giant plating machine cranks out component after component as a small army of workers sort, move and assemble the parts until working motorcycles are spit out the other end of the several football field long facility.
Working here is reportedly a good gig by Chinese standards. A job here means a good source of income and a higher standard of living. Identity cards allowing people to work divide the cities and classes - people from farming areas can't work in the city, and a place like this employs many, and lets them live and work close to the technology and modern Western conveniences of Chongqing.
You may think this factory only builds small displacement Chinese machines, but think again... the kick in the teeth for me was when I spotted the end of the assembly line for the BMW 650GS engine – yes, according to Loncin officials that German bike is powered 100% by an engine built in this factory in Chongqing. From start to finish, the 650GS engine, according to factory management, is built by Loncin in this facility, then sealed and shipped to Germany for installation into the GS frame - then shipped worldwide as a German product.
Something I never saw on the road during my entire stay was a sportbike - no bashed up old sportbikes, not a single rat bike, not even a street fighter - nothing that said performance - but that's about to change. OEMs from around the world are opening up dealerships and bringing their flagship models to this country. What does that mean to a society with no structure in place to deal with ultra-high performance motorcycles? No apparent formal rider training or licensing requirements, no safety gear required - and apparently no game plan other than they thought that "it would sure be cool to be able to buy those awesome looking bikes"?
This was driven home for me during a discussion with one of the officials from the show. I asked her how she though the Police and the Government would be able to deal with these high performance vehicles - such as a Suzuki Hayabusa - when the speed limit on the highway is only 60km/h (about 37 mph). She was confused and had no idea what I was asking... when I pointed out that a motorcycle like a Hayabusa could travel upwards of 300 km/h she was shocked - if only you could have seen the look on her face as she tried to digest this information, as I continued to point out how fast a modern 600cc sportbike will go, let alone a liter bike or a hyperbike - clearly this was "new" information for her.
Then an even more confusing conversation ensued - of licensing, of infrastructure to deal with this - of just how fast these sportbikes go, and YES, that people WILL go that fast. She suggested to me that people would simply not go fast or break the speed limit if they owned a sportbike. I had to laugh - how naive!
A country that has limited itself in performance by building relatively slow, ultra low powered 80, 125 and 250 cc bikes is now blindly opening the floodgates and letting in, unregulated, R1's, Busa's and Gixxers ...
They don't know what they are in for - and neither do I, but we can all guess.
I told her I would check in with her about this in two years to see what happened.
They're Killing Us with Kindness
Our small army of hard working translators - I can honestly say some of the nicest people I have ever met
I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the plane, but it certainly wasn't what I got. The people I met have to be some of the nicest people anywhere in the world. I was encouraged and invited to take in their culture and their country - photograph anything, videotape anything - go anywhere and do anything. They have a positive, bright and exciting outlook as their country races head first into the future. They're becoming aware of social issues - one of our translators is now a member of a local animal protection society - their own new and exciting ASPCA. They're changing faster than we are.
Think the ASPCA in China isn't a big deal? Most animals we consider to be pets end up on the dinner plate in China
The World is their oyster and soon they will all be buying and riding sportbikes, cruisers, Hogs and touring bikes - not because they have to - to get around, but because they want to - and because they want to ride.
They want to be free, to feel the wind across their faces, smell the summer breeze and see the tree branches bend as they accelerate down a country road.
This is the new China.
*Large sections of this story will appear as blank to anyone in China reading it, including government officials and show organizers who invited me to attend as their own policy bans and makes illegal the viewing of content on Youtube.
posted September 26, 2009 02:35 PM
Sounds like if any of you guys have some extra cash, it would be a wise investment to open a dealership there!
Best: 60ft 1.351 1/8 5.68 mph 123.98 1/4
8.89 mph 151.32
posted September 26, 2009 04:41 PM
Yes good to see lots of sport motorcycle enthusiast in China seems like many there share the same 2 wheel passion as we do.
77 RD 400
80 GS1000 GT
posted September 26, 2009 05:55 PM
crazy stuff over there... I could write about it for days and days ... it's a different world, that's for sure.. .there in for more and more culture shock if they keep it up at this pace!
____________ What business is it of yours where I'm from, Friendo?
posted September 26, 2009 06:43 PM
Great story Fish, unbelievable development in China. 1989 Tiannanmen's seems so far away in time...... almost like a different country.
Feel the need for SPEED2007 ZX-14 Black with Red Flames (Helibars, Sliders, Yoshimura TRC Ti 4-2 Slip Ons, Fender Eliminator, Zero Gravity SR Windscreen, Custom Heel Guards , Speedohealer V4, Pazzo Levers -soon to come: Flies out / PCV w/A/T kit and later 16T sprocket)1990 Honda Steed (Japan model same as Shadow)1993 Kawasaki Vulcan EN 500 (gone as I trade it in for the ZX-14)Santiago, Chile, South America
posted September 26, 2009 08:21 PM
Cool story Fish ... well done friendo ..
Smokin Performance Cycles..
Tampa Bay , FL .. Brocks Performance Dealer ..
Gen 2 ZX14R Best ET 8.43 , Best MPH 164.95
quote:Anyone think about the military threat they can muster up???
Lets see 1.3 billon people and more nukes that us .......I don't even want to go there ..
Smokin Performance Cycles..
Tampa Bay , FL .. Brocks Performance Dealer ..
Gen 2 ZX14R Best ET 8.43 , Best MPH 164.95
posted September 26, 2009 08:58 PM
Fish.... Well done. The wife and I want to do the Moto GP in Shanghi!! My little sis-in-law was there last year and she said the same as you.. I think their Commy government is in for a upcoming eye opener of change
The banks are failing..
The banks are failing...
Invest in Ammo
posted September 27, 2009 07:28 AM
Edited By: fish_antlers on 27 Sep 2009 15:30
quote:Glad for you fish.....was the food starnge...?
Were you able to get chicken ,steak and pork close enough to ours..?....I can't see why not...they are a diverse country.....
you take the fast food route...or ventured into their own...?
bet you tried some of their stuff......I would....
no the food was scary... I lost about 10 pounds during my trip and very quickly became a vegetarian. I'm serious about this... I was also warned not to eat pork there by the locals as they feed the pigs back to themselves
they took me to Pizza Hut and I paid for 4 of us ... turns out to be a big deal as the big (about $27) was 2 months rent for them so it was a hugely expensive dinner by their standards...
after the pizza hut I had wicked diarrhea and had to us their pit / squat toilet ... I felt bad for the poor toilet worker guy!
____________ What business is it of yours where I'm from, Friendo?
posted September 27, 2009 07:45 AM
Nice piece of writng Fish...it's not common these days to have such an awesome adventure....thanks for bringing it back for us....did it seem like an easy place to get laid? those girls are cute.
What we don't understand, we can
make mean anything...
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