How a Chinese factory is keeping up with the coronavirus bike boom

Mar 30, 2021

Phoenix is China’s oldest and most storied bicycle brand. The Covid-19 pandemic has kept it busier than ever.

The coronavirus pandemic, with its social distancing mandates and gym closures, has spurred worldwide demand in bicycles.

In the United States, sales of recreational bikes for adults doubled in March compared to last year, according to market research firm NPD Group. On the resale platform Carousell, searches for bikes more than doubled in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore, the platform’s core markets, in 2020.

That has been a boon for Phoenix, China’s oldest and perhaps most famous bicycle manufacturer. Total orders jumped from 5 million in 2019, before the pandemic, to 5.5 million in 2020. It was a record performance.

“It was tight in early 2020 because we had a surge in bike demand, both domestic and international,” says Song Jiaxin, a factory manager at Phoenix. “But we managed to meet demand and make sure the workplace was safe for everyone.”

A worker assembles a bicycle frame at the Phoenix factory in eastern China.
A worker assembles a bicycle frame at the Phoenix factory in eastern China. / Photo: Patrick Wong

In China, the brand has a storied history dating back to 1897 and was a household name throughout much of the 20th century.

“We used to have a phrase,” says Xu Li, brand director at Phoenix. “Three wheels and a speaker. ‘Three wheels’ refers to a bike, sewing machine, and watch. ‘Speaker’ refers to a radio. These were the things you needed to have before you could get married.”

(Read more: The Shanghai watch, China’s first mechanical watch, is still a total steal)

From the 1950s to ’80s, China was known as “the nation of bicycles.” It was not unusual to see more bikes than cars on the road. Owning a two-wheeler was a luxury, akin to owning an apartment or car in China today.

In Chinese, “phoenix” is a “good word,” Xu says, and stands for luck. “So when they got married, people would normally choose a Phoenix bicycle.”

A Phoenix bicycle at the company’s showroom in Shanghai.
A Phoenix bicycle at the company’s showroom in Shanghai. / Photo: Tom Wang/SCMP

But as the country grew wealthier, people gave up bikes in favor of cars. From 1995 to 2002, local governments also issued a number of policies favoring the auto industry and public transportation.

Bicycles made a short-lived comeback in 2017, when a number of bike-sharing start-ups began popping up across China. Financial mismanagement left many of the companies bankrupt, and the bike makers ramped down production.

(Read more: The millions of bicycles going to waste in China)

The coronavirus pandemic has given them a new lease on life. Phoenix’s 2020 sales hit an all-time high, surpassing a previous record in 1994. The bike maker acquired two more factories in Tianjin, in addition to their existing six-million-square-foot facility in Jiangsu.

In big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Shenzhen, office workers see bicycles as a welcome alternative to heavy traffic. Concerns about environmentalism have also added to increased bike use.

“The pandemic does give us challenges,” Xu says, “but I think we have more opportunities as well. I have faith in another boom in the bike industry.”

FactoriesCoronavirus

Credit

Producer: Xin Fang

Videographers: Patrick Wong and Xin Fang

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Narration: Joel Roche

Mastering: Victor Peña