Mark Huang’s Learning Curve – Building Custom Motorcycles in Taipei

The semi-tropical island nation of Taiwan might be small but custom motorcycle building in the capital city of Taipei is impressive. Mark Huang (Mark’s Motorcycles) has a noteworthy international reputation, and his work reflects the historical and cultural place of motorcycles in the country[1].

Mark Huang in his shop in Taipei. [Mike McCabe]
Today, Taiwan has the most per-capita registered standard and step-through motorcycles on earth: approximately 400 motorcycles per square kilometer. In the capital city of Taipei, 2.6 million people drive 1.75 million cars but they also ride 1.4 million motorcycles. This amount of motorcycle ownership would be expected in developing Asian countries but Taiwan is a developed, high-tech place. Bikes are deeply ingrained into the culture of Taiwan for different reasons. On the surface, affordability and perfect riding climate encourage motorcycle culture but dig a little deeper and other factors pop up.  Because of its location in the South China Sea, 100 miles off the coast from Mainland China and 2000 miles south of Japan, motorcycles have a geo-cultural history there.

Two-wheeled ownership in Taipei is the highest per capita in the world. [Mike McCabe]
The high level of motorcycle ownership in Taiwan was encouraged by two interconnecting economic factors: Japan colonized Taiwan from 1895-1945 and finally renounced its sovereignty over the island as late as 1952. After WWII, Japan’s aircraft industry was forced to close and retooled into motorcycle production that was then off-shored to cheaper labor cost Taiwan from the 1940s until today. Manufacturing motorcycles in Taiwan eliminated costly shipping fees and dropped the purchase price for native consumers. Motorcycle ownership in Taiwan was also encouraged by the communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. At the time, people who fled the communists to Taiwan were told by the government that it would mount a counter-offensive and the mainland communist government would be short lived. Everyone thought they would quickly return home and rather than purchase expensive automobiles bought affordable motorcycles instead[2].

Two wheelers in every corner of Taipei. [Mike McCabe]
As Mark Huang will tell you, custom motorcycle culture in Taiwan is small and repressed by history, culture and economics. There are fewer than 20 motorcycle builders who support themselves exclusively from making custom bikes. During the Japanese colonial period, a sense of orderliness and rule based life was cultivated onto Taiwan and this ethos continues today. Following the rules is a part of what Taiwanese people do: Motorcycles are not allowed on toll roads and freeways. There is a strict motorcycle number plate and registration fee system of white (small), yellow (medium) and red (over 500cc) bikes. Motorcycles must be inspected twice a year and modifying or customizing the stock features of a motorcycle is not permitted. Bikes that violate the rules are immediately impounded and owners are fined. Protectionist import tariffs on foreign motorcycles are punishing and add thousands of dollars to a purchase price. For example, the purchase price of a Ducati Course or a Harley Davidson can increase by more than 24%[3]. People who own custom motorcycles in Taiwan must be careful…  Owners switch color and number plates on their custom bikes and usually ride them only in the middle of the night in secluded areas not visited by police. Every custom builder in Taipei has harrowing stories of escaping the reach of the law during a nocturnal chase. To be caught could result in prison or high fine and the end of a custom bike building career. It’s no joke. Mark, other builders and customers push back precariously against their strict mainstream culture to build and ride their custom bikes.

Mark Huang’s daily ride, a custom 1982 Yamaha XS650, with paint by Jeffrey Chang. [Mike McCabe]
“Motorcycles are a part of Taiwanese life,” Mark said. “I have been riding since I was able to get a license at 18 years old[4]. I studied international trade and like all my friends I rode a motorcycle. I had to fix my own motorcycle and buy parts and I would customize a bit and I realized I liked doing this kind of work. The streets of Taipei are full of step-across motorcycles and also Japanese 150cc motorcycles of different ages. There is a history of these Japanese bikes here. My daily ride is a Yamaha XS650 that I have worked on over the years. My friend Jeffrey Chang has always done my paint. I discovered the Japanese custom movement through Shige Suganuma and his Mooneyes in Yokohama. He just visited me a few weeks ago (7-2023). I have been to the annual Mooneyes Custom show four times. I am friends with Kengo Kimura (Heiwa Motorcycles) in Hiroshima. This is the Pacific Rim motorcycle culture world.”

Mark Huang’s iconic 1977 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead custom. [Mike McCabe]
“Twelve years ago I started to collect the different parts I needed to build my Harley Davidson Shovelhead. At that time in Taiwan there were very few people who liked this kind of bike or build project. Nobody could understand why I would do this. Why would I bother to do this? I looked around on eBay and I found this old 1977 Shovelhead motor. When it arrived, there were no internal components to the motor… no pistons or rods. Nothing… It was just the shell of the engine cases. I thought, OK… This project is going to be my learning curve. I started to learn what I needed to do to rebuild this motor. I then found an old chopper frame and I rebuilt the back end and made a classic rigid frame. I shortened the wheelbase and changed the wheel sizes to 19” front and 15” rear. I spent a lot of money and time with this build. It took 4 years of work before I could put this bike on the road. I kept switching license plates on the bike so I could ride it around. I needed to run the bike to be able to diagnose what I needed to do. But, I could go to jail and lose the bike in order to build this bike. This was a real rebel bike build (laughter).”

Mark Huang with his Shovelhead custom: always looking over his shoulder for the cops. [Mike McCabe]
“I now manufacture parts for motorcycles. My customers are younger riders between 20 and 40 years old. Parts for small bikes are usually purchased by students. Then the next level for larger bikes is 30 to 40 year olds, mostly male. A very small percentage of my customers are female. For me, this experience with building my motorcycles is a labor of love. In Taiwan very, very few people have any interest in working on older motorcycles. Most young people like newer models. They don’t see the point of working on an older bike. Originally, I was not a mechanic, I found people I could watch. I read a lot of books about mechanics. But it was also a sense of developing a style and sensibility. I learned that I liked to work on older bikes. I discovered the whole ‘Vintage’ culture about motorcycles. Information about all this was very limited in Taiwan. There was no sensibility about this. I went to the Mooneyes Yokohama show in 2009. I was like Wow! I had no idea all of this existed. I went back three more times. I went to the Joints show in Nagoya. I had never seen anything like this. So many vintage Harley Davidsons[5].”

Dark and downscale, a Mark Huang custom of a Kymco 250. [Mike McCabe]
“The regulations in Taiwan about motorcycles make it almost impossible to have a custom scene here. It is very frustrating. The government restrictions work against people to develop skill sets. A person can look at a custom motorcycle and like it but there is such a gap of experience and no skill set to know how to do it. People don’t know what to do or where to start. This creativity is not encouraged and actually discriminated against in Taiwanese culture. Even if people are curious about a custom motorcycle, the gap is large about where to start[6]. Even if the motorcycle market opened up to accept vintage motorcycles, nobody would know what to do.”

A few finished projects in Mark Huang’s shop. [Mike McCabe]
“When I first started to rebuild my Shovelhead motor and to build my classic 1960s rigid frame my friends would look at all the work I was doing and they thought I was crazy. They didn’t get it because their cultural perspective didn’t have any experience. I was on my own. Now, when I ride my Shovelhead I feel really good about what I did. I had to develop a learning curve over three to four years about the history and the machine. There are less than 20 people in all of Taiwan that are a part of the vintage bike building group. There are so many obstacles to deal with… Culture, economics, distance, sensibility, acquired skill set, appreciation. I only have five or six friends who appreciate all this. We meet up at 2AM and go for a midnight ride. We constantly have to look over our shoulders for the police. We ride up into the mountains for a couple days and go camping. It’s a good life.”

Mark Huang’s ‘Crazy Arc’ custom. [Mike McCabe]
Sensibility is mysterious. Mark can’t explain it thoroughly but he was attracted to a nostalgic appreciation about old machines from a distant culture. The Internet provided the link for him to connect to his Shovelhead and the opportunity to push back against the orthodoxy of his native culture. With his aptitude and ability he developed a learning curve of knowledge about how to reimagine his motorcycle life from the ground up.

Thank you to my wife, Tzyy Jye for her help translating Mark’s interview.

[1] Two additional builders, Winston Yeh (Rough Crafts) and Qun Hong (One Hand Made) and a kustom painter Jeffrey Chang (Jeffrey’s Finishing Touch) are also key members of the Taiwanese Kustom community. Their work will be explored in future articles.

[2] Why are there so many scooters in Taiwan? David Wu 2019. In-depth analysis about the economics and culture of motorcycles in Taiwan.

[3] The Cost-Insurance-Freight (CIF) Import tariff of 24%, harbor charge of 0.0415%, Commodity tax of 17%. When you see a foreign bike parked on the street in Taipei, it represents an expensive proposition.

[4] The minimum age to drive a car in Taiwan is 18 as well as light and medium motorbikes (49cc to 249cc). The minimum age to ride large motorbikes (250cc-550cc and bigger) is 20 years old.

[5] It is estimated today that 50% of Harley Davidson Knucklehead engines are in Japan. The Knucklehead was manufactured from 1936-1947.

[6] In the United States the Kustom Kulture movement took decades to formalize into something tangible. Originally in Southern California the exploding post-WWII youth population refashioned old throw-away cars and bikes into new creative statements. Today in Taiwan, the youth population does not have the power to reshape public opinion about the creative potential of customizing.


Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.