Written by Terence Zhao
At the Bamboo Bicycles Beijing workshop, we spoke mostly with Prima, who volunteers to help run the workshop three days a week. She previously studied in America and lived in Shanghai for several years, although she is a native of Beijing. Our visit began with Prima going over the materials and steps necessary to create their bamboo bicycle frames, which uses only bamboo and a few materials for adhesion, and takes only two working days to complete. Handlebars and wheels can be from old bicycles.
She also briefly described the organization’s logistics. BBB has two full-time employees in addition to Prima, although an MIT grant awarded the year before allowed them to hire six students for a 9-week period last summer. The workshop charges ￥2000 for each bamboo frame made, of which 320 or so have been made in the past 3 years. The price, Prima claims, could cover only the barest essentials for the workshop - namely materials and rent.
I asked Prima about the demographics of the workshop's clientele, which she described as being about 50% foreigners. My first impression was that the workshop to be somewhat detached from the neighborhood it supposedly serves, and this definitely fed that impression. I drew a (admittedly somewhat unfair) comparison at this point between BBB and the tourist-ferrying rickshaws - both were attractions that bring in non-local visitors into the hutongs but do not cater to actual residents. But, Prima points out that the workshop does try to integrate itself into its surrounding community, such as the two public bicycles parked outside that the workshop provides for the community’s use (although I didn’t see them used while there), and the fact that the shop regularly loans out tools and provides free materials to neighbors who need them. And, while not mentioned, I also noticed some public displays and art in the immediate vicinity of the workshop that appear to be their handiwork. From what I could tell, BBB had a genuine desire and willingness to put in effort to integrate itself into the hutong community, despite the overwhelmingly non-local demographic it serves, although the efficacy of those efforts seem doubtful.
I then asked Prima what she saw as the future of Beijing through the lens of her hutong. She began by dividing the present inhabitants of the hutongs into four categories: first, the old Beijingers who have been in the city for multiple generations; second, the poor migrants; third, foreigners; and fourth, young people, among whose ranks she counted herself. She believed that this fourth group was the only one that was able to renew and revitalize the hutong neighborhoods. The first group, she claimed, was either moving out or “dying out,” and their ability to shape the future of the hutong was thus diminishing with their ranks; the second group - the poor migrants - simply did not have the capital (both social and economic) to bring about any improvements to the neighborhood; and the third group - foreigners - are temporary residents and unreliable for long-term transformation. She concluded that the fourth group was thus responsible for taking the decaying hutong and remaking them into something of their own.
I found the language that Prima used to be extremely curious because she made a point to clarify that the second group she spoke about was defined by their low socioeconomic standing, not simply their origin - indeed, one of Prima’s coworkers, whom we briefly met, had an accent from southern China, but was most certainly considered part of the fourth group. She also mentioned other such incursions by young people in the neighborhood, including a calligraphy studio run by someone originally from Taiwan (also technically a “migrant”, but not considered one) and a cafe-art gallery hybrid. Like BBB, none of these places are profitable.
To me, this is very reminiscent of patterns from multiple case studies first-wave gentrification that I have encountered, such as in some parts of Brooklyn, where young, middle-class people looking for a non-mainstream lifestyle (in this case as it was in, say, Brooklyn: living in an urban core rather than a suburb) move into a decaying urban neighborhood and transform it culturally using, for the most part, sweat or non-monetary capital - that is, their own time and energy. And, according to historical patterns, this will eventually lead to, among other things, the hutong regaining value as prime real-estate and the commercialization of the new culture that the gentrifiers brought in.
And whether that second stage of gentrification does occur is another question altogether. For now, however, it was clear that these newcomers to/gentrifiers of the hutong, the “fourth group”, is bringing new life to the hutong and, with it, a new culture that has the potential to reshape the existing fabric, as gentrification often does. And, in a way, the bamboo bicycle itself feels like a metaphor for the changes that BBB, Prima, and her cohort can bring to the hutong - taking the old, be it a bike or a neighborhood, and replacing the heart with something new.