It’s Friday night at the intersection of the Street of Eternal Happiness and a street named Fumin; it means ‘rich people’ in Chinese. Tonight, both streets live up to their names. Wealthy drunk foreigners and Chinese stumble out of dance clubs. Outside, dealers openly sell marijuana. On the corner, people throw coins at a monkey performing tricks. The only thing missing here is a motorcycle gang.
A couple dozen Chinese guys dressed in black leather park their Harleys. The monkey scurries out of the way. The group struts past a Mexican-themed cantina and a bunch of seedy bars, gathering stares. And just when you think there’s going to be trouble, they stroll into a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, where they buy each other lattes and capuccinos.
This is a motorcycle gang of Chinese executives and self-made millionaires. They meet for coffee here every Friday night. The Hells Angels — Chinese style.
“Generally we just drink coffee and sit around and talk,” said Jim Rice. He’s the head road captain of the Harley Owners Group, Shanghai — HOGS for short. He’s the China CEO of the Dutch Food company CSM, and he’s one of the only Americans in the group. He introduces me to the rest of the gang.
“Frank makes sweaters. Jerry, that just pulled up, builds prisons for the city government. Chen Jun makes clothes — designer clothes. Tony Tang is a diamond wholesaler. Who else we got? Winston has a shipping company that ships coal around,” Rice says. “Between us, we probably know everyone in town.
Jim greets another rider in Chinese. This is quite possibly the best-connected motorcycle gang on the planet, and they all drive Harleys — considered luxury items in China. In the U.S., a typical Harley will run you from $8,000 to $20,000. Not in China.
“So here, they’re starting at about $20,000 and working their way up to $45,000 because of all the taxes,” Rice said.
I ask him if he’s talking U.S. dollars.
“U.S. dollars,” he responded. “And a license plate for a motorcycle costs $8,000 in Shanghai, so these are very expensive. It’s a very expensive hobby. One Friday night we got rained out and everybody drove their cars and this whole area was full of Bentleys and Ferraris and Land Rovers.”
One of the riders, a guy named Xiao Wen, was the first employee of Harley-Davidson in China when the company opened its first dealership here seven years ago. He says it was perfect timing; taking their cue from a culture of riding in the U.S., rich Chinese were ready to hit the road.
“The highway system in China is developed very fast in recent years,” Wen said. “We also have the same reason to ride a Harley — to have a very happy ride on the highway.”
In China, there’s now plenty of highway to ride. The country’s paved 32,000 miles of highways in the past eight years, the world’s most expansive road-building campaign since America built the interstate system 50 years ago.
An era that heralded a culture of riders in the U.S. is doing the same in China. 51-year-old Zhu Zhongling owns a Cashmere sweater company. He shows me photos of him on his Harley on remote mountain passes in Tibet, China’s Northwestern province of Xinjiang and from a ride across Africa. He owns more than a dozen motorcycles — three of them are Harleys. He spent $90,000 on his newest one.
And then there’s rider Jerry Gong.
“These days, whenever I’m not at work, I’m on my motorcycle,” Gong said.
Gong bought his first Harley four months ago. He says after spending his life building prisons for the Chinese government, he was feeling a little trapped.
“A motorcycle doesn’t have a roof, a window nor a door. It gives me a sense of freedom. It lets me indulge my passion for life,” he explained. “The city can get very depressing, and when you ride your car to work, stuck in such a confined space, it makes me even more depressed.”
And for Frank (seller of Cashmere sweaters), Winston (shipper of coal), Jerry(builder of prisons), and the rest of the group, China’s rapid rise has given them wealth. But the sound of pistons firing when they start their motorcycles — that gives them freedom.