“Motorcycles can help young people in China find a creative life!” Miki says. She is 26 years old and compact in size but she blasts around Beijing on her Zero Engineering Type 6 with force. The bike’s 92.63ci, air-cooled S&S Shovelhead and Baker 6-speed, combined with the Zero’s frame geometry, works for smaller riders like Miki: A rigid Gooseneck frame with a 33.2 degree rake drops the bike to a closer 3.9 inch frame to street and 26 inch seat to street clearance. The classic Zero design Springer front fork and larger 5.00-16 tires reflect a nostalgic history that Miki appreciates. The bike’s 63.0 inch wheel base, 36.6 inch height, and 28.3 inch width frame squeaks through her neighborhood narrow Hutong[1] streets.

Beijing’s Dong Cheng neighborhood, which retains its thousand-year old vibe unlike the bustling center that has been cleared of traditional center-court, multi-generational chauntong housing. [Edward Chung]

Miki uses Google Translate: “I live and work in Beijing,” Miki says. “I am a make-up artist for fashion, video, movie. There is a group of young people like me who also do the creative life and we ride together. My Beijing tattoo artist friend, Zhou Xiaodong (AKA: Dong- Mummy Tattoo) is an example. I live in second ring road Dong Cheng district where life is traditional chuantong open courtyard house style. Everything looks a thousand years old. It was affordable here ten years ago but now it’s difficult. My friends and I work and then we meet up, ride and relax,” Miki continues. “I have been riding a motorcycle for 10 years, and I have ridden other brands of models and favorites. I have never found what I like in my heart. I felt something was wrong, until I met my Zero, I fell in love with it at that first moment. Because I love retro, no matter the design. The style, or the sound of the engine, all I want, retro to the extreme, exquisite to every detail, call it a perfect work!”

Miki with her Zero, made in Japan. Zero was founded by Shinya Kimura, who later sold his stake and moved to the USA. [Michael McCabe]
Life has changed quickly in Beijing: Just fifteen years ago, Miki and her riding friends would have ridden the streets with millions of others on a bicycle. The city modernized rapidly in preparation for the 2008 summer Olympics. Old Hutong life remains but new areas with glitzy Euro and American cars and fashionable motorcycles dominate the scene. The flow of traffic in Miki’s more traditional Dong Cheng area is still calm and predictable and she splits the difference between new and old riding through the history.

A lightly customized Chiang Jiang, a Chinese evolution of the 1938 BMW R12, produced for decades in the Soviet Union, who later sold the tooling to China. Older motorcycles like this are not allowed in major city centers. [Mike McCabe]
Beijing is 6300 square miles big (20 times the size of NYC, 12 times the size of LA) with more than 21-Million people. The Forbidden City sits in the center surrounded with concentric ring roads that move out 78 miles to the mountains and the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall that has stood since 1570 CE. The Wall meanders like a dragon’s tail for 1300 miles across the semi-arid landscape and serves as a primary and not-so-subtle reminder of historical continuity. But for young urbanites like Miki and her riding friends, the Wall reminds them of a past they might not embrace

The Chinese economy took off during the early 2000s with unprecedented 12% annual GDP growth. Miki, Dong Dong and their friends worked hard to be a part of that new opportunity. Chinese society continues to be closed off from the rest of the world by government filters but young people like Miki use proxy servers to navigate on the Web and see what other young people are doing: The internationalism of fashion, consumerism, trend, style, and a new sense of self that includes motorcycles. If you ride in Beijing, most world bike brands from aggressive, Ninja-style speed machines to up-scale Euro and H-D are now on the streets. During the 1930s-49 the Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang Army rode Indian but sighting one of those is unlikely. The Chang Jiang side car bike had a military history in early Communist China. Today there are urban myth stories about warehouses full of dusty, abandoned 1949-1970s Chang Jiangs. The bikes are not allowed in many areas because of air quality regulations but they are seen on outer-ring Beijing streets. Trendy younger-set kids sneak them on lower ring roads and it’s common to hear their boxer opposing-twin 750 engines blowing smoke on warm summer weekend nights[2].

Riding in the outer ring roads of Beijing just might include an ice cream bar! [Mike McCabe]
Miki describes her day to day riding with friends: “We ride to Gui Jie (Ghost Street) the downtown Beijing restaurant street at night,” Miki continues. “There are 100 restaurants in the darkness. On warm nights we sit for hours next to our bikes and eat. It is called table cultureNi chi le ma? (Did you eat?). Everything focuses on the food, your etiquette skill in the eating. Endless toasting── the angle you hold your glass and at what level when you toast [3]. Slow, easy conversation. No rush. Enjoy the food and company of friends. Life in this section of Beijing is gentle and quiet. Everything works together.” The weight of Chinese culture can be strict for young people like Miki. Gender, social position, family connections go both ways. Xiao Shun or Filial Piety stresses the Confucian doctrine attitude of respect for parents and ancestors. This attitude is particularly demanding for women. Miki risks negative judgment from her marriage-obsessed parents; her relatives, neighbors and colleagues for riding a motorcycle and doing this with male friends. Her arms and shoulders are tattooed and the ink makes her point about self-determination.

Tattoo artist Dong Dong with one of his clients in a traditional full-body tattoo. [Mike McCabe]
“Tattoos have other meanings to me,” Miki says. “And they all have stories! Live hard, live yourself, at first to relieve stress, and later become my soul sustenance, accept the true self, don’t compare with others, everyone is unique, must love yourself, find your own advantages and do what you are good at. Economic independence. For me, motorcycles are my family members,” Miki clarifies. “A part of my life, the pursuit of a source of free soul, and if I am to be strong and become an artist, I think it is my own efforts and natural pursuit of beautiful things! This is how I must live and my Zero helps me understand and do this! Yes, it is fun to ride in Beijing but there is something serious too. My generation stands in the middle between past and now. Very different worlds we go through when we ride.” Motorcycles are powerful messages that transcend time and distance as they encourage personal growth. Miki and her friend Dong Dong ride their Zeros through the old Beijing hutong streets to experiment with and challenge the parameters of their lives.

Miki maintaining her Zero. [Mike McCabe]

[1] Hutong refers to the traditional, narrow alleyways that are a part of traditional Beijing neighborhoods.

[2] The Chang Jiang story is a great history lesson in early moto-globalization. First developed in Third Reich Germany during WWII, then after the War to Eastern Germany, then to Russia, then to China.

[3] A hierarchy of age is a part of Chinese culture that is reflected in how people eat and drink. It is impolite to hold a glass above the level of a senior person when toasting. Younger people at the table serve food to the older first. It is impolite for a younger person to commence eating before an older person.

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.
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