Our Hong Kong interpreter said “Who wants to go to town to buy a bike bell”
“Carpe Diem!” I seized this great opportunity. We had bicycled several days
on China’s streets and roads but hadn’t brushed elbows with local people
during their precious few hours of leisure.
Mr. Wu set a fast pace as four of us walked several blocks to the shops just
before dark. Once there, we stepped around people who gathered on the
sidewalk, visiting, smoking and sipping orange soda near the open shops that
edged the sidewalk. It was a sort of “happy hour” with orange pop.
This was the first laughing we’d heard in mainland China. The only street
light was a single bare bulb of about 75 watts, suspended in the center above
intersections. ~The narrow shop fronts were open and light spilled out to the
sidewalks from the single fluorescent tubes of their sales rooms. There was
almost no street noise except for the passing of two or three loaded trucks.
Wu took us directly to the bicycle store and spoke to the clerks about bike
bells. When we stopped and asked ourselves, “Is this really a bike shop?”
Where were the kids and ladies’ bikes? Stunt bikes, mountain bikes, road
bikes? The helmets, shoes and clothes? There were no glass cases, posters,
bulletin boards -- not even repair or replacement parts in sight. There was
one new tire and a tube or two, rolled up and tied with heavy cord, on the
counter. Two women clerks smiled and greeted us. They were wide-eyed as Wu
told them we wanted to take bike bells back to America.
One woman brought a bell from under the counter. She was surprised that each
of us wanted one. There was no choice of bells; all were the same tone, same
size, same everything -- just like the ones we heard on the streets. They cost
almost nothing. Two new black bikes stood on their kick stands and we looked
for a price tag and found none. Like the thousands men and women rode, they
were heavy, black single speeds with strong frames for carrying heavy loads.
Wu said, “One can not just walk in and buy a new bike even if he has the
money in his hand. Bikes are scarce and a certificate of permission is
required.” A committee interviews the prospective buyer and families with the
greatest need get the certificates. Later, Wu told us that “A laborer in
China has to work as long to save for a bike as an American has to work to buy
a car.” But Chinese people owned no cars.
We examined the two new bikes that stood on their kick stands in the narrow
sales room. As we pedaled along, we had seen trucks unloading bike boxes
marked with huge black letters, “Made in Taiwan.” We asked Wu, “How could
this be since there was no commerce between Taiwan and mainland China?” Wu
explained it. “Oh, they don’t buy them from Taiwan. They buy them from the
Japanese who buy them from Taiwan.”
In the next block a man squatted, repairing a bike. His wife helped a customer
choose a used inner tube with many patches. Limp, worn out tires hung nearby.
The couple’s wrist watches were symbols of their affluence!
Suddenly lights went out, shop doors rolled down and suddenly everybody was
gone. It was 9 p.m., sharp! We found our way to the hotel in the dark. We had
our “sounds of China” and a glimpse of China “at rest.”