Bicycles were introduced to China by Shanghai’s original expat community in the late 19th century. Many of whom, and not just the French, lived in the French Concession.
The French Concession is made for cycling.
Its gently curving boulevards are shaded by a panoply of plane trees that keep the streets considerably cooler than other parts of town.
True, the traffic is still the typical chaotic Shanghai mix of bicycle rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, hand carts, scooters, ebikes, motorbikes, cars, vans, trucks, buses and super capacitor buses.
But the French Concession’s quiet alleys and laneways yield unexpected retail treasures and culinary delights, nestled among secluded courtyards and gardens.
You’ll still find lots of expats riding bikes in the French Concession.
You’ll also find lots of Chinese riding bikes.
But by and large the Chinese riders will either be western educated, or from the poorer end of society.
Unlike the expats who associate riding bikes with fun, fitness and environmental awareness; the Chinese associate them with poverty and the bad old days.
When if you owned a bike, you were lucky and if didn’t--you were walking.
There’s a great Shanghai cycling website http://peoplesbike.com it’s so popular that in 2011 they launched a magazine called 48 x 15.
Tellingly both are exclusively available in English.
Because bikes just don’t have the same cool factor, for upwardly mobile Chinese, as they do for expats.
Little wonder when for the fanatically upwardly mobile, a VW that’s made in China doesn’t have the same cachet as a VW import.
And of course a BMW or Lexus is infinitely preferable.
So a bike doesn’t stand a chance.
What scores upwardly mobile Shanghainese their cool points are dogs.
So in addition to bikes, the streets of the French Concession are swarming with cute little pooches.
Immaculately groomed Shih Tzus, Poodles, Puggles and Labradoodles predominate, but even the odd Bulldog may be spotted on occasion.
And eighty or ninety percent will be walked by Chinese as opposed to expats,
There’s a proverb that says the Southern Chinese will eat anything on four legs, except a table.
With good reason, because there was a time when they needed to in order to survive.
Before a hundred years of economic growth exploded over a single generation, dogs were a handy source of food.
And of course in many parts of China they still are.
So for upwardly mobile Shanghainese living in the French Concession owning a dog confers status.
Because nothing says you’ve made it like not needing to eat one.
Cool it seems is elusive in any language.