Thor's China Diary

Scooter Babes

@18 March 2000
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You hear them first, an offkey buzz like wasps with broken wings, then they pass your bicycle one by one, zeeow .. splut, zeeow .. splut. Usually also the rasping screech of tinny horn. Strange hybrid bundles of red fiberglass and caped bodies. The woman is wearing a crash helmet and a resigned look, stiff, holding the handle bars a little too tightly as if the machine might get away. Behind her, legs akimbo, wrapped up like an Eskimo doll, utterly innocent of danger, lolls the child. Carelessly it sits backwards, or forwards, or side-saddle, or sometimes stands between the woman's legs. The world it knows has always been this way. Four times a day, to the school gate, home for lunch, back again, home in the late afternoon. Pity and shame for the child who comes double-dinked on the back of mum's bicycle.

Three months ago HB arrived at my apartment shivering, swathed in a new leather jacket. He usually comes slightly flushed, after straining an old bicycle up the hill from his apartment half a kilometre away, but at least warm. Would I like to come downstairs and inspect the new motor scooter? There it stood importantly, shining in the window light, not yet devalued with layers of city dust. Three thousand five hundred yuan. HB pressed the electric starter; it whined thinly in a crescendo, engine valves clattered. No faster than 40 km/h, the man in the shop said, until it was run in. And then? Um, 50 km/h. Heck, my bike will almost do that, and running in the morning, I've sometimes passed these things on foot coming up the hill, as they gasp blue smoke and almost die.

But that wasn't the point was it? HB looked slightly abashed. Yeah, sure it was healthier to ride a bicycle .. But, well, their daughter was getting bigger and, um, it was illegal to double-dink people on bikes, so they had to get a scooter. Mm, couldn't they buy her a bicycle?, I almost asked, but didn't. It wasn't necessary to say anything. We both knew that Wuhan has no discernible traffic rules, or none that are taken seriously. Like, nobody expects vehicles to stop for people on pedestrian crossings for example. It is all nudge and bluff. I've never known an urban population with so little road sense, drivers or pedestrians... No, the motor scooter was about something else than transport. A generation ago, having a TV set marked you out - you had made it. Now, with 360 million TV sets in the country that's hardly a distinction. If you want to be known as one of the urban middle class, a mobile phone and a motor scooter are the new badges of office.

How lucky, unlike jaded Westerners who have it all, that there are still consumer dreams to come in China. It reminds me of an almost forgotten world, the optimism of my early years in the 1950s, before we knew about nuclear armageddon, when new car models were eagerly awaited every year, and "progress" never had inverted commas around it. As many have told me in China, without a flicker of reflection, it is the dream of every Chinese man to own a car, someday in the rosy future.

Yesterday it was spitting rain, and I was a little later than usual for my morning run. On Zhudaoquan Lu the piles of rubbish from last night's outdoor restaurants had already been shoveled off the pavement, and the hawkers with their bowls of dry noodles, black squares of deep fried bean curd, long batter sticks of fried bread, and wedding cake stacks of steamed buns .. were relaxing after the breakfast rush. As I ran down the hill the workday traffic was becoming heavy, a steady roar of big blue trucks, rattling buses and swarms of little red taxis. In the midst of this torrent, a stolid woman rode uphill doggedly, her bicycle weaving and wobbling slightly under the strain. But standing on the luggage rack of the bicycle, with the poise of a ballerina and the most serene gaze I have ever seen, was a tiny girl of about four years old, holding an umbrella above her mother's head.

"Scooter Babes" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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