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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Bicycle and National Identity

Here's is a great little video of one person's Top Ten Cyclists. Some of the footage is truly amazing and inspiring. You can really get a sense of the grit it takes to even compete at this level. Only after you've hammered for a day on a bike can you fully appreciate the heroics these guys have accomplished. Look for the Lance snub.

The Bicycle and National Identity

With the Tour de Taiwan scheduled to begin on March 14, I think it is really amazing how cycling has become a significant part of Taiwan's national identity. People love to turn out and watch.

As most people know, Giant is the world's leading producer of bicycle frames and related products, but it is not the only major player in Taiwan. Several large companies work in close cooperation with smaller subcontractors that produce much of the equipment that makes its way into the professional peloton. Despite what many folks are led to believe, Taiwanese companies do not simply supply the labor to produce foreign designs, but rather conduct much of the initial R&D. The now ubiquitous compact geometry was first developed by Giant to fit more people over fewer frame sizes. This close and cooperative relationship between the OEM, subcontractor and foreign customer has allowed the bicycle industry to seep from the centralized factory compound deep into the township economy. Initially this phenomenon went against the Leninist sensibilities of the KMT during its years of political monopoly. U.S. pressure helped break the state's stranglehold on large industries and allow for small companies to grow and expand.

Taiwan's particular historical trajectory resulted in Taiwan developing the unique economic and industrial relationships between the center and the periphery. Following WWII when most Taiwanese were excluded from participating at the center of political, cultural life and state driven economic enterprise, those who owned land and could rely on extended family for labor, could deploy these resources to establish small to medium sized enterprises. It was not uncommon for young men and women of the era to have received some industrial and vocational training under the Japanese. These small to medium sized enterprises often took advantage of guanxi networks to build the foundations of an industry. For example, at one time, almost the entire township of Caotun was in some way involved in the umbrella manufacturing industry. Homei did textiles and the township of Chingshui once produced hats for the Japanese where the skilled weavers later went on to sew tennis racquets and other sporting goods... including footwear and later parts for bicycles. Piece work was a common way to enter an industry and involve the entire family in the process. From this period the Taiwanese bicycle industry really took root.

The Taiwanese consciousness of their global role as the producers of the world's finest bicycles was partially driven by politics as many political actors sought to strengthen a Taiwan centered identity which has existed for at least 100 years, but an identity which has been assailed by competing ideologies since its inception. Despite the politicization of the bicycle in Taiwan, the image has been widely accepted as a meme of both the Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese pride. It is not uncommon to see politicians ride bicycles or pictured along side bicycles to appeal to the Taiwanese national identity which is shared by approximately 80% of the population (Often those who do not support the Taiwanese identity by deed are the first to appeal to it).

This conflation of the bicycle into the Taiwanese identity often manifests itself on the road where ordinary folks take an interest in a group of passing cyclists. I get spontaneous waves and smiles from random strangers when I am on the road. Children root and cheer. I have had complete strangers hand me food and drinks. In the U.S. the only time you get a drink is when someone shouts "faggot!" and throws a Big Gulp at you from the window of a pick-up. In Taiwan, people like to admire a nice bike and they can usually tell if it is good or not.

Still, I always get the same question... "Is it a Giant?"

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