Elliot Wilson

In Tianjin

The pace of change in China

In Tianjin
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The Wangdingdi market on the outskirts of this fast-growing port city in north-east China is an extraordinary sight. It might be the world’s largest bicycle market; it’s certainly the loudest. In the roiling heat of a Chinese summer, touts at the market gather in a liquid throng, moving like mercury, urging — sometimes almost rugby-tackling — you into their stalls.

Each shop is virtually identical, smelling in equal measures of garlic, vinegar and armpits, and packed to the gills with every type of bicycle: some designed for the town; some for mountain trails; some, to judge by their battered appearance, for the scrapheap. But the star of the market is the Flying Pigeon, the grande dame of Chinese bicycles, based on a 1936 Raleigh and built solidly enough to withstand a charging hippopotamus. Half a billion are believed to be in use across the country. Available for about £70, the Pigeon is an acquired taste. On a smooth downhill straight it can fly, but its narrow, swept-back handlebars, closely embracing the knees, give it the turning circle of a Sinclair C5.

Yet life is changing fast in Tianjin, boding ill for the makers of the humble Pigeon and some 250 other bicycle companies. This is the showcase city of the current crop of Communist leaders in Beijing, who want to transform it into a world-class manufacturing centre, and the Party’s gateway to the world (the city’s name means ‘heaven’s mouth’). Just 60 miles from Beijing on the polluted eastern seaboard, Tianjin is a city of three parts: an old-fashioned, elegant core, built by the foreign colonial powers in the early 20th century; newer suburbs of dreary, identikit architecture and fast-food outlets; and 25 miles to the east, the sprawling Tangguh port complex, a Chinese Lowry painting of belching factories and bilious air.

Industrialisation is also boosting per-capita income, and Tianjin’s population — 10.4 million and rising — increasingly prefers the car to the bicycle. Cycle-lanes are fast disappearing to make room for wider highways. Tianjin’s bicycle industry and the spirited touts of Wangdingdi market are living on borrowed time. Go and see them while you can — if you can stand the pollution.