Throwback: Cheng Chau and Cycling

by Michael Veith March. 30, 2017 680 views

Having only recently taken up cycling avidly in the last three years or so in Winnipeg, I tend to solely associate cycling and ideas that come along with it - active transportation, sustainable living - with my North American context. 

For most of my life, my context was the city of Macau: a city close besides the metropolis of Hong Kong. Macau itself was, and still is a small, yet bustling metropolis of its own. Growing up in Macau, it was small enough that we either walked everywhere or we caught a bus, which was part of an extensive network. My only ever encounters with bicycles would be when I would see a street cleaner or some other person of lower societal ranking, or at least this was my impression. The concept and idea of biking around was very different in Macau and Hong Kong, then the circles I interacted with back here in Winnipeg. There is always talk about making and then every so often we will shoot past the scenario "what if our whole society revolved around bikes?"

It would only be later in a recent conversation with my parents that I realized there was a place: Cheng Chau island. I quickly scrolled through my Lightroom to view my last trip there 3 years ago and here is what I uncovered.

The vast array of boats in Cheng Chau harbour are a testament to the island's long history as a fishing community. They say that Cheng Chau is one of the longest inhabited places in Hong Kong.

The vast array of boats in Cheng Chau harbour are a testament to the island's long history as a fishing community. They say that Cheng Chau is one of the longest inhabited places in Hong Kong.

About 10 miles from the centre of the Hong Kong mainland, Cheng Chau or 長洲 (literally translated as "Long Island") is located in the southwest corner of Hong Kong. The dumbbell shaped island is about 2.5 km squared and has a population of over 20,000. Originally simply a gathering for the fishing communities of Hong Kong, the island was handed over, along with the New Territories to Britain in the late 1890s. 

Considering the population size, there is still a lot of greenery on the island, with most of the island's population congregated together in the centre of the island in mostly a vast array of apartment blocks, generally tightly packed together and three to four stories tall.

With such tight arrangements, the streets are incredibly tiny. You add on top of that the inhabitants as well as the tourists who fill up the streets, and you are left with the only viable form of transit being the bicycle.

People of all ages can be seen cycling through the streets of Cheng Chau

People of all ages can be seen cycling through the streets of Cheng Chau

It's not only that bicycles are the most viable mode of transportation, they are in fact the only legal method of transportation. All personal vehicles and automobiles are prohibited on the island. There are small transport vehicles, which fill the void of the island's firetruck, ambulance, and other essential services, but they make only brief appearances in the bike-filled narrow roads and alleyways.

This makes Cheng Chau a completely fascinating place. The way of life in Cheng Chau beckons back to photos of Beijing in the 70's and 80s, when everyone was biking around. Biking back then and now in Cheng Chau isn't a lifestyle choice, or an environmentally sustainable practice, its just the way you get around. That or walking. 

What could look like a scene from somewhere in the Netherlands, bikes crowd the island's boardwalk.

What could look like a scene from somewhere in the Netherlands, bikes crowd the island's boardwalk.

As much as that's a beautiful sentiment to think about, how these people are unconsciously being incredible environmentally friendly, that deems the question: "if they were given the option would they want to get a car or perhaps move somewhere where they could get a car, a house, and more spread out spaces?" I guess according to the phrase, once the necessity is gone, no inventing is needed.

Here's to hoping that no more solutions for Cheng Chau need to be invented. They have a good and cool thing going for them. Let's keep it that way for them.

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Cheng Chau has a deep a special place in my heart. My family (picture above) vacationed there all throughout our upbringing in Maca. The island is completely encapsulated with memories of carefree holidays and happiness.

Cheng Chau has a deep a special place in my heart. My family (picture above) vacationed there all throughout our upbringing in Maca. The island is completely encapsulated with memories of carefree holidays and happiness.

This article is dedicated to my Uncle John (center). He passed away in 1997 in a cycling accident. My only clear memory of him was the two of us shopping in - of all places - Cheng Chau.

This article is dedicated to my Uncle John (center). He passed away in 1997 in a cycling accident. My only clear memory of him was the two of us shopping in - of all places - Cheng Chau.

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