The Battle Princess (yes, it’s her real name) and I have seen some serious miles together over the last two years, she with her steel gray paint and black basket, the two of us trundling along roads and lanes and the occasional sidewalk (only when it was illegal to ride on the road, mind you – we didn’t want to terrorise pedestrians), we even got hit by the odd car or two. She was a tough bike for a tough city and we learned how to navigate the seeming lawlessness of Shanghai’s roads until we eventually rode like locals – going through red lights, swerving around trucks, dodging collisions.
But the Battle Princess has become a much reduced version of her former proud self, and two years of sitting in the rain has left her rusted, cobwebbed, and frankly shabby. It was time to find a replacement.
I had been secretly hankering after a Forever C bike for over a year after I saw a friend’s retro-styled powder blue model with its white wall tyres, leather covered handgrips and saddle, and pedal-powered front light. Forever Cs are a retro makeover of Shanghai’s iconic Forever brand for the modern cyclist, in heaps of cool incarnations.
In my quest to acquire one, I may or may not have left the Battle Princess unattended – even unlocked on occasion – on the off chance she would find her way, via a petty thief, to a happier home. Or the scrapheap. No! I didn’t really think she’d end up on the scrapheap.
After some research I discovered Forever bicycles had opened their ‘flagship showroom’ in Yangpu district, where apparently I could view every model in one convenient location. Yesterday I rolled up there, money in hand, ready to part with it. I envisaged a gleaming white space where you could build your own bicycle from different coloured components, and test drive one while looking nonchalantly hip, all the while receiving exemplary service from cool young bike-loving salespeople. You know, like on their website.
It wasn’t exactly what I had imagined. For starters, it looked kind of un-flagship like, and also closed, but that was because the two fifty year old guys in tshirts, shorts and flipflops who appeared to be in charge had shut one of the doors so they could smoke inside without a draft.
I gave them a friendly “I’m here to buy a bicycle” type “ni hao” as I pushed the door open and walked in. They ignored me and looked the other way, pretending I wasn’t there. One took a long hard draw on his cigarette.
Inside the showroom, a dim oddly shaped space, was a ragtag mix of different bicycles parked in rows on a broken tiled floor, with the few Forever Cs hidden in a corner wrapped in factory foam. Theft deterrent, thought I. Put them out on display and someone’s bound to walk in and nick one from right under your nose. Better to hide them in a corner disguised as any old bike.
After several laps of the store I determined there were, in fact, only five Forever Cs in the Forever C Flagship Showroom. I asked the bosses if I could try one. One was too busy lighting his next fag to look up, but the other gave a desultory wave of his hand towards the bikes and then looked the other way. I took that as a yes.
How can you buy a bicycle when no-one wants to sell you one? And how can you take it for a test drive when it’s wrapped in foam and has no pedals? I, however, am more persevering than that and will not be put off by mere disinterest. I started pestering them with questions.
‘How much is this one?’ (‘Expensive’)
‘Can you fit a basket on it?’ (‘No’)
‘Does it come in black?’ (‘Yes’)
‘Do you have a black one here? (‘No’)
‘What colour do you have?’ (‘Red’)
Having finally captured their attention I did what I’ve seen countless Chinese shoppers do when faced with lacklustre service. I started to boss them around unmercifully.
‘Get that one down for me’
‘Put the pedals on’
‘Lift the seat up, it’s too low’
‘I want a basket’
‘And a fitted lock’
‘And a bell. No, a proper bell. No, a silver bell’
‘And I want it all home-delivered’
Galvanised into action, they shuffled around the shop gathering a basket, a lock, a box of bells, another box of bells, and various sizes of Allen keys and wrenches with which to fit it all, unlit cigarettes dangling from their lips. A few guys from neighbouring shops wandered in for moral support.
The female cashier, probably one of their wives, returned from lunch and gave them both a brow-beating. ‘Why didn’t you put the pedals on for her?’ The shuffling intensified. The mood changed.
‘How high would I like the handlebars?’
‘What colour lock would I like?’
‘Could I possibly wait until tomorrow morning for delivery?’
All of a sudden I had their undivided attention as they both set to work on my new red bicycle, customising it with locks, bells and baskets and adding pedals. Allen keys were flying everywhere. The bicycle was parked directly in the doorway of the shop as they worked on it, to deter new customers from getting in – a few squeezed past anyway, had a look, asked a few questions and were promptly ignored. They soon left.
So at last here she is – my new Forever C red bicycle. I think we will be very happy together. The colour is a bit more ‘steal me! steal me!’ red than I’d like, but what the hell. It’s a seriously fun bicycle to ride.
And that 8 kuai Shanghai postman’s bell. Don’t you just love it?
The Battle Princess will not be forgotten though – she’ll be called out of retirement from time to time when we have visitors, or when my new bright red bike gets stolen.