Monday, December 10, 2012

The embodiment of Hong Kong's peculiar cultural character, all in a speakeasy-like setting.




There's a decidedly international feel to Hong Kong, which is in part due to its past colonial relationship with the United Kingdom. But that worldly sense is not limited to the fleet of Rolls Royce Phantoms parked outside the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Hong Kong has been influenced by an endless stream of visitors, business people and merchants, some of who started streaming in long before Kowloon was the last stop in the trans-Siberian railroad.

And yet, despite the international undercurrent that is palpable while in Hong Kong, there are moments when westerners who don't speak Cantonese (like me) will feel completely lost, both in a literal and cultural sense. Personally, I don't mind this too much, since I tend to write this off as a basic component of international travel. Having said that, some such episodes are certainly memorable, like the start of my visit to Hong Kong's Life Cycle bike shop.

Getting to the shop seemed easy enough. I mapped out my route to Ma Tau Road in eastern Kowloon, and arrived to the modern mid-rise building without much issue. I took the elevator to the second floor, and saw a sign for the shop, which had an arrow pointing to the right. So far, so good. The arrow, however, pointed to the only business on that floor, a large snooker hall with tables as far as I could see. A few customers looked my way, and went on about their business. I looked in every direction, but couldn't find the shop. It wasn't as though I was looking for a needle in a haystack, but I quickly realized that looking for a bike shop in a Hong Kong snooker hall wasn't much easier. I tried to open a small door, which was nothing more than a broom closet. Where on earth was the shop? 

I went up to the hall's front desk, excused myself for not speaking Cantonese beyond the phrases I'd rehearsed endlessly on the plane, and proceeded to ask about the shop. The elderly man smiled and shook his head. He brought someone who appeared to be his son, to see if I could communicate with him. No luck. Eventually, a woman came out, and she very kindly asked me to sit down by showing me a chair next to a table. She brought me a glass of hot tea, and signaled for me to wait. At least that seemed to be what was happening. I wasn't sure.


I suddenly found myself sitting at a table in a smoky snooker hall in Hong Kong, drinking tea, waiting for something. Or someone. I really didn't know. I was completely lost, and had to chuckle as a result, particularly since I still wasn't sure that anyone knew what I was there for. Was I even in the right building? The right floor?

Fifteen minutes later, as I sipped my tea very, very slowly, I began to wonder....if I drink all the tea, will they give me another glass? Will I be charged? I had no money left on me, and I started to worry. Then I saw someone walk through the hallway looking in my direction. As the lone westerner there, I'm sure I stuck out. "Klaus?" the friendly face asked. "Yes!" I shouted excitedly, as I jumped out of my chair so fast that I nearly knocked the remaining hot tea over. The friendly face was that of William, one of the owners and co-founders of Life Cycle bike shop. He had expected me to call him upon my arrival, but since I had no mobile phone, I had ended up sitting there, sipping tea very, very slowly. 

"Let me show you the shop", William said, as he led me into the snooker hall. As we walked by all the tables, I was even more confused than before. Was the shop inside the hall? Was the snooker hall the shop? Maybe, I joked to myself, the shop was behind a some hidden secret panel on a wall. 

We walked to the end of the large room, and William seemed to be walking straight toward the back wall. Then, unbelievably, he reached for the wall itself, and moved part of it over. A secret panel!


Behind that sliding panel was a door. Behind that door was a rooftop terrace, and just a few feet away was the entrance to the shop. A real-life cycling speakeasy, hidden behind secret doors in the back of a smoky Hong Kong snooker hall. I was in heaven, but still didn't know what to expect once William took me inside the shop. I removed my shoes (the first time I've ever done such thing in a bike shop), and then looked around. There was a coffee bar, a big screen TV, a the collection of rangefinder cameras, vintage eyeglasses and motorcycle parts. Curiously, I saw European goods in every direction I looked.

The shop, it turns out operates mostly by appointment, and caters partly to discerning locals, but also to the large population of foreign executives (many of them European) who end up calling Hong Kong home as a result of their jobs moving them there. So what could at first appear to be a case of Eurocentric fetishism, is actually a representation of Hong Kong's unique character, much in the same way that Colombian bike shops are lovingly peculiar in their own way.

To find out more, I decided to ask William some questions, in order to learn more about his clientele, Hong Kong, and what makes a shop like his unique (aside from the secret access panels). I also wanted to talk about cycling in Hong Kong for the same reason that I so often write about Colombia: to shed light on how a seemingly homogenous pursuit like road cycling, is actually as varied as the many locales where it occurs.


Why did you decide to start Life Cycle?
My partners and I have been spending most of our time on wheels for some time—be it on BMX bike  when we were small, to mountain bikes and road bikes nowadays. Cycling is what we have always been interested in. We thought it'd be perfect if we could get ourselves involved in this arena, and help advocate cycling in Hong Kong - a place still catching up with the rest of Asia in promoting cycling as one of life's essentials for a sustainable bike-friendly community.  In June 2012 we finally took the leap of faith to establish Life Cycle. We came about as a desire to bring the energy and passion behind the manifesto to life through something we love, biking.



Your physical location is somewhat unusual, can you tell me about the realities of doing business in a place like Hong Kong?
We are in one of the booming districts in the city. Unlike a street shop with very limited space due to skyrocketing overhead costs, we find this a good move for us to fully live up our dreams with spacious presentation, as well for customers to hang out at our place like a biker hotspot! Our patronage is not built on buy-and-sell relationship, but retail theatre and brand experience. With our "oasis" approach within this hustle n' bustle city, we will stay true to what we think Life Cycle will aspire to people in Hong Kong.

Life Cycle presents a store, cafe, gallery and meeting spot for bike enthusiasts to watch important races on screen. A place to share experience, a place to interact with all cycling devotees.



Who is your usual customer?
We aim at catering target customers of 30-something to 50 years old, who are time-poor, brand conscious, keen on sports,  and of high disposable income for a better treat in life. This represents a new social demographic groups who are discerning about the kind of lifestyle they want for themselves. Especially true in Hong Kong with all smart consumer, they only want the best available.
We strive to offer something that will connect to these target segments, to help enhance their lifestyles, and inspire more cycling. 



The brands and products you carry are an unusual mix, particularly for a place like Hong Kong. How did you decide what brands you wanted to carry in the shop?
We have been our own target market! We have had experience working with brands in the UK, Italy, Japan...who are always at the forefront of the cycling arena.

For us, we ensure Life Cycle is not confined to the mainstream. We select and bring only créme dé la créme choices on the market - the premium brands with a history and presence in cycling past and future. A good example would be Condor Cycles with so much heritage from the past—since 1948—and mileage forward for locals to experience under our roof. 

 

What is cycling like in Hong Kong, from utilitarian cycling to more competitive riding?
Urban riding remains a luxury here as urban planning does not cater this purpose fundamentally.  Cycling as a form of transport is hardly fulfilled nowadays [William is not exaggerating here, during my time in Hong Kong I probably saw less than five people riding bikes under any circumstances].

With the harbor front cycleway on Hong Kong island, a cycle route along the Kowloon waterfront, and coordinated cycling facilities in foreseeable future, we hope that the community can make cycling a commuting mean - be part of our daily life.



What are the best routes in and around Hong Kong that you'd recommend for road cyclists?
For a leisure ride on Hong Kong island, pedal along the south coast with a cafe pit stop at Shek O.  Popular choices in New Territories would be Tung Chung-Disneyland for roadies and time trial riders. "The Beast" with a gradient of up to 16%  for some serious challenges before climbing up The Buddha in Lantau island.

There's a bike shop in this shot.
 
You carry several European and American brands, whose products are sometimes made in Asia but designed in those countries. But you carry almost no Asian brands to speak of. Do you find this inversion of sorts to be interesting or unusual?
We are attracted to the unrivaled heritage of British and Italian brands. The reason being that we are inspired by them. Nowadays, due to commercial agenda, more and more marques take their manufacturing to Asian countries.

And you also sell brands that make their frames in the United States and Europe
We find this a matter of being selective in joining with reputable brands rooted from their origins. Our target customers appreciate the authenticity and the hand-made fresh from the frame builders in Europe. This is especially attractive to local expat as they can get these quality goods from us conveniently!


  
What is your goal with Life Cycle, and where do you hope to see it go?
We have many feature ideas stretching into the distant future. We look forward to collaborating with brands from other part of the world to bring more quality choices to locals. We function as a brand custodian and ambassador on their behalf.



6 comments:

  1. Very good story, reminds me of searching a gallery in Tokio, which was on 4th floor.

    Regards,

    Dr. Ko

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  2. Fantastic story Klaus. I loved the whole snooker parlor thing. Sounds like you are having a great visit.

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  3. Wow. I live in Guangzhou, a short bit away and a much bike-friendlier city, but ocassionally travel to HK and this is a place to try and check out, even though the HK class snobbery is well in evidence - but that could just be bike snobbery. I am amazed that old guys riding creaky, heavy bikes manage the roads, but the Fredtastics on bikes whose frame that cost more than the others yearly income can't.

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  4. Been to Asia multiple times, including HK, and very often can be very tricky to find bike shops.

    As for HK, as Indfusion meant, HK guys sometimes can be a bit snobby.
    And being a snob is an expensive hobby. ;-)

    Next time jump on the nearby Shenzhen and I can help you out for some bike related visits.

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  5. This shop is truly unusual to be a bike shop, but I love how you did it. Sometimes, it's disturbing to see same bike store concepts. At least you still kept the bike "thing", minus the gears.

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  6. Hey Klaus, this is a fantastic story. This impressed me to search about life cycle.

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