"Irony-resisting Chinese bicyclists have skipped the fixed-gear trend that has swept the rest of the world. By J. David Goodman
BEIJING—A multicolored messenger bag slung over one shoulder and short-brimmed hat cocked to the side, Nie Zheng parked his brakeless bike in the corner of a trendy cafe in the Beijing Central Business District before settling into a molded plastic chair to chat about his particular obsession. "It's been a dream since I was a kid to get a bicycle like this," the 40-year-old fashion photographer told me. "But no one sold them here." It took nearly nine months, he said, to get a track bike he wanted sent from England in 2007.
Such devotion is something of a rarity among the fashion-conscious in China, where bicycles are simply not mainstream cool. In fact, this bike-saturated nation has—so far—managed to skip entirely what is arguably the biggest global bicycle fad in a generation: the fixed-gear."
Irony also plays a key role, as riders deliberately opt for an expensive, often custom-made ride, with hand-built components, that is less functional than what's available at Wal-Mart.
It may be this last aspect that's preventing the bikes from catching on in China. Indeed, the anemic fixie scene seems to offer an object lesson in the difficulty of marketing fashion irony here.
"There is a saying in Chinese: 'Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes,'" Juanjuan Wu, a professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Chinese Fashion From Mao to Now, told me. "Hipster fashion only really works by communicating your irony—in other words, someone needs to 'get it.' Hipster irony in dress would most likely be misinterpreted in Chinese society as simple poverty or weirdness."