Archive for November, 2013

Thomas

My journey to meet a Chinese biker who calls himself Dr Jones is almost out of the pages of John le Carre. Three times after I leave my hotel in the north of Guangzhou the mobile rings with a different set of instructions about the meeting place. It was supposed to be a straightforward ride on the Metro, from one end of Line 2 to the other. Instead, I am told to change at Changgang, get on Line 3 and off at Kecun. I do as instructed. At Kecun the mobile rings again. “I’m at the end of the line waiting for you.” What station is at the end of Line 3? But something has been lost in translation. Eventually I work out that Dr Jones is “at the end of the platform” and at last I spot a guy in a biker’s T-shirt talking on his mobile.

We board another Metro train together. “Sorry,” says Howie, as the self-styled doctor is known to his mates. “I don’t use the Metro very often. Prefer two wheels.”

Howie, aka Dr Jones

Howie, aka Dr Jones

Little is at is seems around this part of south east China. Howie loves riding his Harley Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide but he can’t do so anything like as much he’d like. Performance bikes are banned in the SE China city of Guangzhou; in fact bikes are not entirely legal anywhere in China. On January 1st 2007 the government stopped issuing licences to motorbike riders, part of a crackdown on bike-borne handbag snatchers and box-checking environment/pollution issues. In theory, Harleys and other brands should be off the road.

But Howie and fellow members of the Guangdong Harley Davidson Group are not minded to lie down and disappear. So long as they don’t provoke anyone or venture into the city centre they seem to get away with riding.

“We have 50 members,” he tells me after we eventually arrive at a compact but unmistakeably Harley shop. “Ninety per cent of us own Harleys. The other bikes include an Indian, a Moto Guzzi and a Ducati Panigale.” No Japanese machines? “No Japanese machines.”

“We get together because we have the same habits, the same love and value. We like American style. Our concept of the motorcycle comes from the Harley Davidson.”

The group meets every weekend and arranges a fair number of spectaculars including visits to Tibet and Beijing, and further afield to Sturges, picking up hired bikes in the States.

Guangzhou HD shopMost of the members bought their bikes before the 2007 ban came in. Anyone wanting one today would have to pay around £14,000 for a Sportster or £69,000 for an Electra Glide Classic (approx £7,000 and £20,500 respectively in UK). There are a handful of official distributors in China, strangely still in business despite the legislation, but most enthusiasts look to America via Ebay.

Howie’s 1989 Ultra Classic is downstairs in a subterranean car park. We go take a look. There are three other Harleys in close attendance as Howie proudly removes the dust cover, purring over the retro looks and firing the motor which pulses happily away.

Upstairs there are around a dozen bikes for sale plus a range of Harley-branded clothing and other bits of kit. A couple of engineers have turned up to tweak motors. “Harleys – always trouble,” grins Howie. “You have to look after them. But that’s part of the pleasure.”

His English is good. He learned some at school but says his fluency comes mostly from watching American movies. He’s a freelance graphic designer, working mostly for Western companies in Guangzhou and clearly doing pretty well. We go for a bite to eat at the grandiose restaurant next door and talk about life in China, and bikes. Back at the shop, the owner, known simply as Thomas, has arrived and uncorks a bottle of red wine (that’s Thomas pictured at the top).

I was given a great welcome

I was given a great welcome

“I have a passion for motorcycles,” he says, somewhat unnecessarily. “There’s no other shop like this in Guangdong” – Guangdong being the regional province with a population of some 105 million. Despite the vast potential, it seems the Government restrictions are having some impact. Thomas sells only around 20 bikes per year. “But I expect to build the business and increase sales.” Who are his customers? “Mostly business people. Half of them love Harley Davidsons. The other half just want something unusual.”

More chat, and it turns out the guys are planning to visit the UK – riding their Harleys overland all the way. And back. It’ll be one heck of an effort. But then, so is keeping the light burning for Harleys in China these days.

©Charlie Lambert 2013