The Motorcycles of the Pearl River Delta

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The fast ferry between Hong Kong and Macau is disorienting. It is essentially a floating airline cabin, with neat rows of preassigned seats in which you are expected to remain for the duration of the trip. Roving attendants offer drinks and sandwiches. There is no outside deck on which you can stand and taste the salt air, or feel the wind on your face as you move inexorably towards your destination. Instead, you sit down, take a nap and then, one hour later, emerge into a city that in theory shares a language and culture with Hong Kong but in practice is so much more exuberantly Latin.

Macau is an disorderly but very intimate city, especially in the labyrinth of crowded streets and laneways that make up its oldest, most interesting and thankfully least-touristed section. The first thing you notice when you leave the ferry terminal and emerge into its streets is the abundance of motorcycles and scooters, giving Macau the feel of a grimy Mediterranean port that somehow washed up on the shores of the Pearl River Delta.

From a practical standpoint, scooters make sense in Macau because the city is so dense and compact. The Macau Peninsula, home to 390,000 people, covers just 8.5 square kilometres—in the Santo António parish, 104,200 people are squeezed into a single kilometre—so scooters are the fastest and most space-efficient way to move the population. In fact, scooters are so popular they outnumber cars 66,000 to 64,000. Something about the constant buzz of tiny motorcycles speeding down impossibly narrow streets and leafy boulevards gives Macau an unpredictable edge that even Hong Kong lacks.

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While I never got the chance to travel across the border into mainland China, another city seems, at least from afar, to have a similar kind of atmosphere: Guangzhou, or Canton as it is commonly known, less than two hundred kilometres away from Macau.

Despite the systematic marginalization of regional languages by the mainland Chinese government, Guangzhou remains the largest Cantonese-speaking city in the world and the spiritual heart of Cantonese culture. It is also the wealthiest city in China, having just recently passed the per capita income of US$10,000 that is considered by some to be the threshold for “developed” status. (By comparison, this is roughly equivalent to the per capita income of the Bronx, which is $13,000.) In Guangzhou, however, rather than being a charming part of the city’s character, motorcycles and scooters are associated with crime, poverty and migrants. Now, in a typically heavy-handed fashion, Guangzhou authorities have decided to ban them. The New York Times reports:

In a measure of just how problematic prosperity can be here, the city will institute a ban on motorcycles and motorized bicycles on Monday, hoping to quell a crime wave that has been building to more than 100,000 offenses a year.

The vehicles, the primary mode of transport for migrant workers clawing their way up Guangzhou’s economic ladder, are also favored by criminals who have terrorized the city in recent years, including a shocking case in late 2005, when a woman had her hand cut off by a thief on a motorcycle. News accounts concluded that motorcycle thieves were divided into gangs, including one called the Hand Choppers.

“Crime will be a long-term problem in Guangzhou,” said Peng Peng, director of research management for the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences. “As long as there is a vast gap between the rich and poor in the city, Guangzhou will suffer from crime.”

The Communist Party is forever trying to focus the expectations of the Chinese people on a better, if distant, future where everyone is more affluent and where China is a true modern nation. Yet cities like Guangzhou and nearby Shenzhen, which have already begun to taste real prosperity, are learning how new wealth can bring new problems and not always solve the old ones. As incomes have risen in Guangzhou, so have crime, traffic and inequality.

Inequality here is unquestionably stark between the 7.5 million registered residents and the estimated 3.7 million migrants. This week, Guangzhou had to lower its per capita income figure to $7,800; the $10,000 level had been calculated without including migrants, whose wages are notoriously low.

But public sympathy has limits, particularly since studies show that migrants are responsible for much of the city’s street crime. Most major Chinese cities feel very safe by American standards. Still, in Guangzhou, thefts, purse snatching, robberies and muggings have become common. One 2006 poll found that only 20 percent of residents felt safe. Hawkers at one pedestrian overpass in Tianhe District were selling switchblades and collapsible metal rods as self-defense weapons.

Last March, Zhang Guifang, a high-ranking Communist Party official in the city, signaled a tougher stance when he encouraged police officers to open fire on crime suspects when necessary. The police subsequently shot five mugging suspects, and crime seemed to slow down.

Recently, there has been talk, including by a high-ranking official in Guangzhou’s Communist Party, of capping the number of migrants allowed into the city as a means of curbing social problems. As yet, the city has not instituted any restrictions, but the motorcycle ban has already forced thousands of motorcycle taxi riders to leave. Others have turned over their motorcycles and motorized bicycles to government impound lots in exchange for modest cash payments.

“It might be because Guangzhou is richer now,” said Lin Mu, 50, a motorcycle taxi driver, offering an explanation for the ban and then laughing at his own words. “There are no more poor people, so there is no room for motorcycles! Everyone has millions and millions!”

Another migrant, who gave only his last name, Gong, idled his motorcycle with other riders along a major thoroughfare in the city’s Tianhe District. “A lot of people have left,” said Mr. Gong, 40, his eyes darting in search of customers as well as police officers. “We’re just biding our time until the final deadline on the 15th.”

Mr. Gong said he migrated to Guangzhou five years ago from Hunan Province. He had earned about $250 a month on his motorcycle — a healthy wage for a migrant — but now he said he was not certain what he would do.

“Oh, here they come, here they come!” he said, suddenly racing off as two police officers approached on a motorbike. “Sorry, I’ve got to go.”

Along Beijing Road, one of Guangzhou’s most fashionable shopping boulevards, random interviews found that nearly everyone had been robbed or knew someone who had been. Maggie Qu, 20, who recently graduated from a local technical college, said a thief stole her wallet and cellphone out of her purse two months ago. Her friend, Chen Jianguo, 21, expressed sympathy for migrants — “They are Chinese, after all” — but he blamed them for the crime problem. “They do bring crime,” Mr. Chen said. “Unemployed people and uneducated people have to make a living, so they may resort to crime.”

He added: “There are too many of them coming, and there are not enough job opportunities.”

Of course, migrants are also responsible for performing the hard labor that generates much of the city’s economic output — just like elsewhere in China. Ye Cunhuan migrated to Guangzhou from Hubei Province in 2003 and opened four stores that sell motorized bicycles. These bikes, equipped with small motors, are popular for deliveries and also for people who cannot afford a motorcycle. Now, Ms. Ye has had to close two stores and is facing ruin.

“This has been fatal to my business,” she said.

She has responded by filing a lawsuit that claims the ban violates a national law that establishes the legality of motorcycles and motorized bicycles. The case was heard last Monday, and she expects a verdict by March. Ms. Ye scoffed at the idea that criminals used motorized bicycles, given their low rate of speed, and characterized the ban as an act of discrimination against migrants and others with less money.

“They don’t want to see any of the poor or any ugliness on the streets,” Ms. Ye said. “They want Guangzhou to be a city that attracts wealth and beauty and is full of luxury cars.”

What is happening in Guangzhou is part of a nationwide trend. Over the past few years, officials in various Chinese cities have banned electric bicycles and human-powered bicycles, blaming them for traffic congestion and accidents. What this is really about, of course, is class: just as China’s officials tear down old neighbourhoods and neglect historical documents, they wish nothing more than to clear the streets of old-fashioned bikes and scooters, symbols, in their minds, of a poor and backwards country best forgotten.

At least Macau (per capita income: $22,000) is left out the mainland’s collective neurosis. The buzz of little motorcycles will echo through its narrow streets for quite some time to come.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday January 17 2007at 03:01 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “The Motorcycles of the Pearl River Delta”

  • Duke says:

    It is a shame since we live in a small town the mini motorcycle as we call it, is a great way to go to the store and get some bread and eggs. Why pollute the environment with a car when you can zip down on a mini?