The first time I heard the name was as an undergrad in Ben Stavis’s China: Politics and Revolution course. Professor Ben Stavis was first and foremost a tweed wearing Sinophile of the highest order, fluent in Mandarin and all things Chinese. He had been studying the country since he came across an article on China in his university library in the late 1950’s and was instantly and irrevocably hooked. He studied and worked in China for a number of years and his students were treated to stories of his time spent living abroad, his firsthand account of how the country dramatically changed over the course of the last few decades. One particular week he organized a dim sum dinner for the class at a restaurant in China Town in hopes of teaching the class about authentic Chinese cuisine and manner. It was over this dinner he first mentioned the famous Flying Pigeon bicycle company and said, only half jokingly, that everyone in China owned a Flying Pigeon and he had used one as his primary mode of transport while in the country. He mentioned the name several more times throughout the course and always spoke of them with an air of nostalgia, so fondly, in fact, that I was inspired to find out more.
I googled the Flying Pigeon, read a brief history, and fell in love with what I found. The bicycles were sturdy timeless machines that looked as if they’d last a lifetime. I tried to find a shop where I could buy one but wasn’t successful.There didn’t seem to be one single distributer in the US. All of those hundreds of millions of FP bicycles in China but not even one could I find; water, water everywhere but not a glass to drink! I figured China didn’t need to export when they had a market of 1.1 billion to sell to.
The factory that later became Flying Pigeon originally produced “Anchor” brand bicycles and was built by a Japanese business man in 1936. The factory was taken over by the communist government that came to power in 1949 and the first bike rolled off the production lines on July 5th, 1950. It had been a century so far filled war; the Japanese invasion of China, two world Wars, a civil war, and a bloody conflict that was raging on the Korean peninsula, into which China would be drawn. The name Flying Pigeon was representative of the hope that the second half the century would be more peaceful than the first.
Their goal was to make a beautiful, strong, and durable bicycle, a machine for the people, and the FP quickly became a symbol of a supposed egalitarian social system that led the new nation to be dubbed the Kingdom of Bicycles. The bicycle was the approved form of transport by the Mao regime. It became so ingrained in the culture that it became one of the three must haves for citizens, alongside a watch and a sewing machine. By the 1970’s Deng Xiaoping defined prosperity as “a Flying Pigeon in every household.” Today the government estimates that a half-billion bikes are in use throughout China, many handed down through generations. The Pigeon is one of the few nostalgia-inducing artifacts of China’s post revolutionary era, which was darkened by the Cultural Revolution and intense poverty. In 1994, the government named it a “national key trademark brand under protection,” enshrining it similarly to other national treasures.
I had forgotten about the Flying Pigeon for a number of years until a recent trip to China. I saw on old man peddle by on what I instantly knew was a Flying Pigeon. A great excitement rose up inside me. I was finally going to ride one! I rented a PA-06 from a local shop despite the sub zero temperatures and spent the day getting lost around Beijing; Tiananmen Square, The Summer Palace, and the bustling back street markets where I haggled with shopkeepers for trinkets and souvenirs. .The definitive classic FP, in my mind at least, is the model PA-06 , with double top tubes, rod-actuated brakes, a rear rack,28 inch wheels and available in one color, black.
The first thing I noticed was its sturdy, rugged design. It was built to last this wasn’t a bike that was going to have to be replaced in a year or two or ten, it was a purchase made for life. At 22kg it was by no means a light weight bike but it served its purpose perfectly, a reliable flatland bike to get around town in an economical manner.
Like most things that I love the bicycles are utilitarian and beautiful, or beautiful because they are utilitarian. The lines are clean and simple and the bicycle is available in one color, black. It’s designed to do a job and it does that job well, it is a bicycle, a bicycle that helped fashion the modern China and the Flying Pigeon has a lesson to teach about simplicity. So often we make our lives more complicated, we get the carbon fiber racing bicycle with disc brakes and twenty seven gears that cost two weeks salary and requires constant tune ups and adjustments when what we really need is a one speed black bicycle. If you’re training to become a world class cyclist or are even a serious hobbyist then by all means buy the carbon fiber bike, but I think most of us need to simplify instead of complicate. There is an understated beauty to the Flying Pigeon that proves when something is designed to be truly functional its form can be beautiful as well. Whether it’s a Merkur double edge safety razor, a Stowa mechanical watch, or a well made pen, there’s a difference you feel when using something built to last, it has a certain weight to it, and as time goes on you develop a relationship to an item of quality, it becomes familiar and in some small way a part of you, something that a Bic round stick medium or a Casio digital just can’t accomplish. It’s not about paying for a name, the name is irrelevant, it’s about spending a bit more for an item of quality that will save you money in the end.
If developing a relationship with your belongings sounds strange it’s simply because we’re used to our disposable society; a razor you use for a week and throw away, shoes that wear out in six months, or a car that is committed to the junk yard after ten years. Things are designed to be disposable or replaceable, it’s called planned obsolescence. It’s one of the reasons we have so many “innovations” on products that don’t really need to be improved upon, the manufacturer simply wants you to replace the old model.
I remember when I was very young there were still a few repair shops around town, if your toaster or TV broke you took it down to the repair shop and had it fixed. Today those repair shops are gone and when the toaster breaks we throw it away, it’s cheaper to buy a new toaster because the toaster is cheaply made, it is built to not last. It’s not so with the Flying Pigeon, it’s one of those few increasingly hard to find items worthy of repair, one of the rare finds that needs no innovation or improvements, it’s a product built to fulfill a need not create a consumer.
Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, will be published in June 2013.