Thor's China Diary

Bicycle Wars

I had bought a bicycle, cheaply it seemed, from the Hong Shan department store outside the front gate. Naively assuming that something new would be useable, I took it home. The untensioned brake & gear cables, a few loose bolts etc seemed shoddy, but not critical. Then I spun the back wheel. It sounded like a coffee grinder. What was to be done? Was it just a dry bearing, or a bearing running on coffee beans? Next morning HBN picked the thing up to register it with the bureaucracy, Chinese style, the assumption of all parties being that if I turned up at some office with it, the apparatchiks would panic and want directions from head office in Beijing.

Then in the afternoon, XB arrived. She reminds me, for all the world, of a stick-insect wearing gold glasses, but she has this kind of self-appointed role as provider of stationery, and general useful person to know. Maybe it is because she's aware that she really has no idea how to teach Chinese in our exchange, or maybe she is genuinely considerate. Probably both.

Anyway, we picked our way through the fruit vendors and popcorn stalls outside the back gate, dodged some rattletrap buses, and consulted a bicycle repairman on the pavement. As I've come to expect in these sort of encounters, the man didn't look at me at all. Presently an apprentice appeared and took the bike for a test ride of a few yards. Again, be didn't look at me, but the message to XB was clear enough: take it back to the seller.

Our arrival in the basement of the department store was definitely news. Somebody returning the product clearly didn't happen too often. Eventually a boy with a crew cut was induced to look at the bike. He spun the socket gears in a desultory way a few times, tightened the de Railleur setting with a screwdriver, and declared the problem over. XB nodded credulously, not knowing a bearing from a necklace. Besides, the boy (I learned later) was one of her former students, so he must be OK).

I wasn't so easily pleased, growling "bu shi", and jabbing at the axle housing. The boy played dumb, but it seemed to rattle the next in command, for presently the message came through that I could choose a replacement bike. Things were going swimmingly until the floor manager muscled in. A thin woman in her forties, with a face like varnished box-wood, she exploded in a torrent of vituperation. The counter staff for fifty metres around smiled fixedly, XB showed all her teeth and nodded. I glared at the floor manager.

The bike could now not be replaced, the message was. The manager retreated to neutral territory, never meeting my eye. I kept glaring, in a decidedly unfraternal way, and muttered some rude things in my barbarous tongue. Two male friends of XB arrived and discussed the situation in rapid Chinese. The reinforcements were worrying the enemy. A message came back across the floor to "wait a minute". The crewcut appeared again.

I took him across to the glass counter and pointed at a bowl of ball bearings. No longer able to play dumb, he removed the back wheel, opened the left hub and fished the bearings out one by one. They were smeared with a wisp of grease, definitely not packed, and to his eye looked like any other bearings. He screwed the hub back together, and looked doubtfully at the sprocket side. It needed a special tool to release it. He pushed at the key slots with the corner of a screwdriver, slipped, and removed a bit of skin. That was going to be the end of it. The bike brand just wasn't so good... Well, they were probably right about that. Chinese bikes it seemed, were running on mild steel bearings that might or might not be actually round.

The Hubei divisional god had been watching the exhibition, and decided at this point to intervene with an emissary. He was a smallish, rotund man in his forties, with crooked teeth, and carrying a small boy. He greeted me with great familiarity, and by some miracle of memory I recalled his face from one of the evening classes. Actually, he had only been to one class before being cast with half the 78 hopefuls into the arms of another teacher, AF. We chatted about this and that in the Chinese way. He had sent me a "test" e-mail it seems. Well yes, I had replied briefly to something like that. Was I buying a bike? Well, not exactly buying one... There was a small problem.. Well, these things happen in China. You know, the quality control is not so good ... My new friend made an occasional enquiry of the crewcut.

After some time, another one of those disembodied messages found its way into English from no source in particular. The floor manager had decided after all that we could choose another bike. So I did. It cost Y100 more than the first (about A$20). XB and my new friend nodded their heads approvingly, and said that it came from Tienstein this time, whatever that implied.  Crewcut changed over the luggage rack and bell; XB came back with a receipt for Y100 - she had paid without saying a word - and I hastily fished out the cash to repay her.

The lady with the leather face came like a bhodisvatta to deliver a homily in her abrasive voice, still not glancing at me once, and everybody laughed. We departed, 3 hours after arriving, got 2 metres, and found the tyres flat. Crewcut grunted, and my rotund friend pumped up the tyres. Again, I hoisted the machine up the basement steps. "Try it", said XB. I did, and the chain fell off. Back down the steps. We could feel the eyes following us. XB laughed nervously. Crewcut reset the de Railleur gear tension and remounted the chain.

Outside at last, I asked XB curiously what my sometime student did for a living. Well, actually he was a professor of computer science at Wuhan Central Normal University. Aha. Miss Gravelly Leather Face, like a general in the wings, had made her assessments on the changing tide of the battle. One dumb Long Nose she could stonewall; XB's male friends were an unwelcome reinforcement to the opposition, and called for a temporary tactical retreat. The professor's arrival, as an obvious blood ally of the enemy changed all the equations. Like the Original Celestial Jade Pure One, the Great Immortal overcame all opposition with a mere effortless sweep of his sleeve.

To tell the truth, the bearings on this new bike ain't no challenge to world supremacy either. They grumble, they don't whisper, but at least for a while they shouldn't dribble out of the bearing cage like disappearing cough lollies.

"Bicycle Wars" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 1 October 1998