H.O.G.s hit highways: Meet the Chinese Harley-Davidson fanatics
When Jim Rice and his Chinese friends traveled from Shanghai to eastern Mongolia and northern China in 2010, they stuck out like proverbial sore thumbs.
This was not because of Rice's American stature, but because of the gang's transportation -- three shiny, massive Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“No one had seen motorcycles when we got there,” Rice laughs. “We were like escaped zoo animals.”
H.O.G. explores China
California-native Rice is the head road captain for the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) Shanghai Chapter.
The irony of the American culture in China is that people are willing to pay three times more for a bike. That’s how much people love it.
-- Xu Youli (许幼力), 38, member of Harley Owners Group Shanghai Chapter
Having lived in Shanghai for 20 years, the 47-year-old CEO of a bakery supply company rides a 420-kilo Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra.
“My friends told me I needed a hobby; even my wife said I needed to get a hobby, so I did," says Rice. "I bought a motorcycle.”
Most owners in China ride Milwaukee's best-known product only for leisure.
“It’s so great to ride in China because of the beautiful freeways -- no one is on them,” says avid rider Xu Youli, 38 (许幼力), who hails from San Francisco.
“It’s nice to be in the countryside where there isn’t any traffic.”
Xu, a manager of a bakery store in Shanghai, joined H.O.G. nearly two years ago.
“I ride because I want to see and explore what the country is about,” added Xu, whose Harley Sportster 883 is his pride and joy.
The housewife biker
Every Chinese H.O.G. member has a different reason for indulging.
For Rice, it’s the mid-life crisis. For Fifi Sa (羽婷), a Shanghainese housewife, it’s a gender-defying hobby.
“I don’t think riding a bike is a boy thing to do -- it is normal,” explains Sa, the only woman who rides with H.O.G. Shanghai.
Sa, 31, says she started riding motorcycles at the age of 18 and she loved it from the very start.
She bought her first big bike, a Harley chopper, two years ago because she wanted to learn how to ride this specific type of vehicle. Now, the mother of a four-year-old boy owns six bikes: a moped, a chopper, a touring bike, two toy bikes and a sidecar bike.
You don’t see people tattooing Louis Vuitton or Rolex on them. [Harley-Davidson] is a brand people want to tattoo on their body.
-- Jimmy Tsung (宗绪明), owner of the Harley Davidson dealership in Suzhou
Sa is trying to get more Chinese women involved by introducing riding and Harley-Davidson culture on China’s Twitter-like social media site, Weibo.
She recalls her favorite trip with her husband, Winston Sa, when they rode to Yunan Province and back.
“It was beautiful,” she says. “The people and the culture were very different. I felt like I was in another country.”
Jim Rice recounts another member’s motivation of buying a bike: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Ye Jun and his wife were watching ‘The Terminator.’ Ye saw the motorcycle in the movie and told his wife he wanted one.
“She immediately told him a Harley Davidson dealership had opened. They went. He bought a bike,” recalls Rice.
Harley-Davidson’s network in China
H.O.G. is a worldwide community for Harley Davidson owners to meet up and organize rides. Each of the 1,400 chapters in the world is sponsored by an authorized dealer.
The first China H.O.G. was established in Beijing in 2006. There are currently 10 other chapters in China's major cities including Chengdu, Dalian, Shanghai, Suzhou, Qingdao, and Wenzhou.
The Shanghai’s chapter, which started in 2008, has nearly 600 members, mainly Chinese. Membership continues to grow. The group is expecting to draw 200 new members in 2012.
“I used to wake up [in Shanghai] and want to be in America, but I don’t get homesick anymore,” Rice says. “Now, I have hundreds of friends all over China. I have more friends here than I do at home in the U.S.”
H.O.G Shanghai embarks on around 40 rides each year, including trips to nearby destinations like Moganshan, Tai Lake or Zhujiajiao as well as overseas rides in Europe and the United States. Members go Dutch on the expenses.
Last May, these intrepid riders traveled together to Austria. In September, they will ride in the United States. (With each trip abroad, they fly to their destination and then rent motorcycles.)
American culture on highway
Riding a Harley in China is an expensive hobby.
Jimmy Tsung (宗绪明) is the owner of the Harley Davidson dealership in Suzhou. He says that he sells 10 motorcycles a month with the unit price ranging from RMB 93,000-RMB 460,000 (US$14,761-73,016).
Tsung, who ride a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide, adds that people often throw in another RMB 50,000 to customize their bikes.
Then they have to buy the gear: helmet, leather pants and jacket. Add another RMB 30,000 or so.
Looking the part is a big deal. Black leather, maybe with Harley-Davidson’s flames emblem, or a mean looking clown on a T-shirt brings a sense of toughness.
And some of them have a more permanent mark.
Tsung says: “You don’t see people tattooing Louis Vuitton or Rolex on them. [Harley-Davidson] is a brand people want to tattoo on their body.”
Another, but most important expense is a valid Chinese driver’s license -- RMB 70,000. The license is good for 11 years. After that -- bizarrely -- the bikes are scrapped.
Riders also need to check local traffic regulations before riding to another city in China.
According to the state-affiliated Society of Automotive Engineers of China, about 100 cities have motorcycle restrictions -- some to curb traffic or to regulate noise.
Despite all, the quintessential U.S. symbol is starting to find its roots in China.
“The irony of the American culture in China is that people are willing to pay three times more for a bike,” says American-Chinese biker Xu Youli. “That’s how much people love it.”