Archive for the ‘Beijing’ Category

In Which the Narrator Catches a Bike Thief Red-Handed

May 8, 2012

One does not have to have lived in Beijing for very long to count bicycle thieves among the true scourges of your existence. While I have been lucky in my 2+ years of living here, I can think of countless stories from friends who have walked outside one morning or afternoon to find their bike, or at least a wheel or a seat, mysteriously gone. Cousin Katie lost two bikes last summer in the space of a month, locks and all. Bike theft in Beijing is so rampant that it is treated not so much as a preventable crime but rather with the same fatalism as the traffic or the smog. I have been told that actually trying to protect your bike with locks is futile (though my US-made Kryptonite lock has held up so far), but rather that the best protection you can offer is to discourage thieves by using dirt and scratches to make your bike look older, thereby making the next bike over more attractive by comparison.

Last week, I came face to face with a manifestation of this invisible, omnipresent force. I was

caught red-handed

walking out of the Teach For China office when, as I prepared to unlock my own bike, heard a soft sawing sound from just up the block. Looking up, I saw a man hunched over the bike several yards from mine, bent over the back wheel and, yes, sawing vigorously. He was making no effort to conceal it: people continued to cross the street nearby, no more than a few yards from the in-progress robbery. I flirted briefly with the notion of doing something heroic, of calling him out somehow, but wasn’t entirely sure what I would do or on whose authority I could confront him. So I opted instead to just stare in disbelief.

That was enough to get his attention at least. After a furtive look upward, he returned to his sawing. Pulling out my phone to take a picture, though, was enough to scare him off. He backed away from the bike and silently walked past me to the end of the block, throwing another guilty look over his

the lock was no match

shoulder before he turned the corner. I went over to take this photo of the lock on the bike once he was out of view: in just about a minute he had already sawed most of the way through the lock.

I got on my bike to leave again, turning the same corner to find him idling there. As soon as he saw me approaching he began ambling back to his victim. The brazenness was too much for me to resist; I circled around again to find him back at the same bike, and pulling out my camera to take another picture was enough to scare him off again. At that point, though, my heroic urge to defend the bike lost out against the realization that I was already late for something. I’ll never know if I had harassed him enough to scare him off or if he returned for a third time to claim his prize.

the villain makes his escape

Certainly this awkward confrontation was no more than confirmation of what we already knew. Even in broad daylight, with plenty of witnesses, your bike is not safe. I highly recommend the investment in a real Kryptonite lock.


Weird Parks

September 13, 2011

A friend of mine working in Beijing for an urban planning think tank once said to me that for anyone in the urban planning industry, China is the only place in the world right now worth working. Every once in a while a news story comes out which hammers this point home–the replica of Manhattan currently being built southeast of Beijing is one of the best examples. I can certainly say that owning a bicycle has allowed me to confront this city’s enigmatic urban landscape in a new way. Navigating the city at ground level, I inevitably come across something surprising, even travelling to a location that I had previously visited many times before by taxi or subway. This weekend, I made the rather dubious decision to bike to 798, the famous art district off in the distant wilderness northeast of the Fourth Ring Road, to represent Teach For China at a social entrepreneurship event. On the way I was struck once again by the variety of, and sometimes nearly incomprehensible, ways in which architects and urban planners in this city have decided to make use of public space.

I was riding back from the art district along Xiaoyun Lu 霄云路, a major northeast/southwest thoroughfare, when, reaching a corner, I stumbled across a deserted stone square lined with uneven, broken stone structures, looking for all the world like a crumbling Roman amphitheater–or at least a theme park replica of one. The stone paving, slick with the low drizzle that had been coming down all day, was covered with bas reliefs of ancient Chinese characters.  

The park opened out from the nearest street corner, where I saw the main entrance was marked by a massive stone tablet declaring the name of the park: 石林广场, “Stone Forest Square.”

Just a few blocks southwest of Stone Forest Square, I came across a public space done up as its polar opposite. I did a double take when I first came across the sculpture of the woman driving a chariot in the picture below. Crossing the street, I saw that the chariot was the centerpiece of a whole park laid

Stone Forest Square

out in an imitative European style, complete with carefully groomed hedges and a row of Arc du Triomphe miniatures. These made the archetypal red Chinese lanterns hanging from the interspersed streetlights–perhaps hung in honor of this weekend’s Mid-Autumn Festival–even more incongruous. The park marked the entrance to a swanky new apartment complex. While a lot of new, expensive Chinese apartment complexes are saddled with grandiose names, often of American or European places (I have a coworker who lives in a “Palm Springs”), this complex had received the sleek, modern title “No. 8 Xiaoyun.”

Winged Victory on a chariot in front of No. 8 Xiaoyun

European-style park, Arc du Triomphes included

The contrast of these two parks–one done in an imitative ancient Chinese style, one a gaudy European replica–just a few blocks from each other, was incredibly striking. It was one of the best reminders I’ve seen in a while of the strangely egalitarian way in which Chinese culture seems to navigate a whole range of cultural influences–since the full range of external cultural influences flooded into the country simultaneously  several decades, a whole range of cultural tropes are drawn upon equally and with no sense of hierarchy between them. Not as grandiose as a replica Manhattan, sure, but still a stark reminder that no one uses their public space quite like the Chinese do.