Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bicycles in Sibu

Have you ever asked any one about the bicycles of Sibu? You may be answered disdainfully - "Bah! Bicycles? They make Sibu the most difficult town in South East Asia to manoevre when you are driving....even cars are afraid of them!!"

Bicycles broke every traffic law in the town. They were every where! And almost every one rode a bicycle in the 60's. There were good Raleigh bicycles and the rest were made in China. The Catholic Priests rode them, the secondary school teachers rode them, the hawkers rode them , housewives rode them and when the school session ended, there were thousands of them on the road making a racket.

When did the bicycle first appear on the streets of Sibu? Nobody really knew. But it was said that a missionary brought one and gave it to a Henghua pastor as a farewell gift in 1900's , in Sungei Merah. Someone said that the Brooke government had brought some to help the officers move about in Sibu before cars came in the early 1900's.

In some ways, the use of the bicycle in Sibu had a direct relationship with the usage of bicycle in China.

The bicycle was already in existence in China before the Foochows came to Sibu in 1903.

The writer, Binchun who visited Western Europe noted the Michaux' pedal-driven prototype of a bicycle even months before the invention became known to the European public. Binchun had visited France, Great Britain, Germany and other nations between March and July 1866. After his return, he reported to the court on various curiosities he had discovered during his mission in the West. Among these he had seen in Paris two types of a strange device:

"On the avenues", Binchun writes, "people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet, thus keeping the vehicle moving. There's yet another kind of construction which is propelled by foot pedaling. They dash along like galloping horses." (Binchun, Chengcha Biji, 1866/68)

However, the bicycle or the velocipede is not commented on in any known official source.

The Industrial Revolution had taken off in Europe and economic progress was rearing its head in almost every coal producing European country,and the United States. Japan was just at teething stage too.

However, much later, it was through newspaper reports that the Chinese government in particular and the Chinese public in general, that a greater interest was made in the usage of the bicycle. Especially when it was found out that the bicyle weas better than the horse in military expeditions! There were Chinese newspapers reporting on competitions between horse and bicycle in western armies, and also in Japan. For instance, the 1900-mile ride, of the 25th US-infantry battalion, from Montana to St. Louis, Missouri in 1897, was discussed in the journal Shixuebao, in regard to the possible introduction of bicycles in the Imperial army, only a few weeks after its successful completion. Whether this discussion ever came to fruition is questionable, at least there is no documentation of trial runs, or bicycle squads in China, before the early 1930s.

Between the 1870s and the early 1890s, European and American expatriates, living in the so-called treaty ports; Shanghai and Tianjin, or in the Chinese capital Beijing, were practially the only cyclists in China. Members of these fast-growing multinational communities effectively transferred their materialistic western culture and life styles to the Far East. Like other western commodities, first introduced in the coastal cities, the bicycle came to China in the trunks of missionaries, businessmen or colonial officers, and spread from there, rather slowly to the hinterland.

One movie featuring Gong Li showed a scene of the beautiful actress learning to ride a 22 inch bicycle in the house. The time frame of this movie is probably the late 19th century.

Thus the first Chinese cyclists were probably wealthy students, journalists or businessmen who had returned from abroad and brought their bicycles back with them.

The traditional Chinese were still very much against Western influence so the bicycle probably remain a show piece for a longer period than necessary. At the same time gramophones, photographic equipment and other technical devices were bought by the upper class, and used to exhibit the progressiveness of their owners. To cope with this complex cultural dilemma, a rough simplification was coined in the commonly used 19th century formula: "Chinese knowledge as a basis, western technology for practical use" (Zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong).

It was mainly the high prices" which restricted the availability of the imported bicycle to a thin layer of the higher social strata. Cycling was a phenomenon of the western-oriented upper class. Democratisation of cycling thus did not set in until the 1920s." wrote a Chinese historian.

However by 1930, there was a record of 20,000 bicycles in Shanghai alone.

The bicycle entered into many aspects of life, not only privately but also due to its use by public institutions. Many Chinese may first have been equipped with bicycles as postmen, soldiers, or as members of modern police squadrons. But also, on the other side of Chinese society, the usefulness of the bicycle, for the fast and flexible transport of goods, was highly appreciated when rice was rationed in 1941/42. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, smugglers brought in quantities of rice on their bicycle racks.

In the 1930s, the Chinese cycle industry finally came into being. Nearly synchronously, the three largest importers of bicycles Tongchang Chehang (Shanghai), Changcheng (Tianjin), and Daxing (Shenyang) established their production lines. Starting around 1929/1930, with the assembly of manufactured and imported cycle parts, the enterprises grew rapidly. The combined output of the Chinese bicycle industry reached 10,000 units annually between 1937 and 1945. By the mid-1930s, Chinese cycle history reached a stage comparable to that of Western Europe around the turn of the last century. A rapid increase in numbers of cyclists in the larger cities can be observed shortly after mass production was taken up. Prices now finally reached a level, which brought the bicycle within the reach of a wider population. The number of bike owners in Shanghai (3.5 million inhabitants) constantly increased to 230,000 in the late 1940s. China-wide, there may have been half a million bicycles in 1949.

The year 1949 marks a pivotal year, not only for Chinese national history, but also for cycle history. After 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, the bicycle soon found a strong advocate in the communist government. Whether problems in the building of a public transport system, adequate to the needs of a "socialist" society, were the practical arguments for the endorsement of bicycle traffic, or whether there were ideological reasons, may be left to further research. As a matter of fact, the bicycle received strong support by the Chinese government in different ways: the cycle industry, which was established by merging smaller manufacturers into larger national firms, was given preferential allowances of rationed materials. The nascent bicycle industry thus was able to accomplish growth rates of 58.7% annually -ambitiously charted out in the first Chinese Five-Year-Plan. The level of one million bicycles was reached in 1958. Bicycle lanes became part of urban street planning and commuting workers received financial subsidies when purchasing a bicycle.

Today's ubiquity of the bicycle in China has led to the widespread assumption of a cultural inclination of Chinese to bicycling. In fact this is far from the truth. The Iron Leg Vehicle or the leg pedal vehicle or the leg vehicle had taken a long slow road into becoming a common machinery for the common man in China.

When the bicycle slowly made its way to the Sibu social scene, it was the Heng Hua community which was responsible for introducing its sale. Thus for a long time, the Heng Huas were associated with the selling of bicycles, repairing of the rubber tyres and other parts of the machine. Rubber tappers soon found that it was quite easy to balance the rubber sheets, or latex on both sides of the bicyle.

In many parts of the Rejang River Valley, the villagers used the bicycle to carry water , pepper,foodstuff,and any other goods,instead of using the local bamboo bian dan or pole.

When I was a child, having a ride across the central bar of the bicyle with my uncle was the time of my life.

And in later years, when I was old enough to own a bicyle to go to school, I gained my first freedom of a young adult. It was like getting a driving licence today.

However, it was the mobility which derived from using bicycles that enabled the Communist Underground movement to prosper. Youngsters were more mobile and they could easily speed along the rubber garden paths to attend their secret meetings.

During the Emergency in Sarawak, all cyclists were stopped by the Police, Field Force and the Gurkhas at checkpoints. Every one of us was suspected of being a Communist. Only our Hajis wearing their topi Haji and sarong were not stopped at a checkpoints. No Malay I suppose was ever involved in any Communist activity.

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