Sideways angels on their hogs (Photo: Chris Day)

(Published by The West Australian on 3 November 2011.)

Sometimes a middle class guy just has to rip off his conformist mask to expose his inner biker.

That is exactly what I did in Shanghai, the giant city that rivals Hong Kong as the money capital of all China.

Sure there were nice and safe bus tours available, but Shanghai once had a reputation for outlandish behaviour and I wanted a taste.

Shanghai Sideways offered a four-hour experience that looked me to like an urban version of the Easy Rider movie.

It involved a ride on sidecar-motorcycles through the city streets and lanes but with half the time on foot and exploring.

They had the five bikes ready at 9am on a coldish Saturday, one machine per couple of riders. The woman sat in the sidecar, the man on the elevated pillion or vice-versa. Thankfully they provided a guide who drove.

“Want to wear a helmet?” asked Jonathan, our guide who looked like Peter Fonda to my wishful Dennis Hopper.

Up surged a feeling of rebellion, a chance to raise a digit to the nanny state. But one look at the vintage helmet and goggles and I surrendered to image. They looked good with my leather jacket. All that was absent was a tattoo, a missing molar and a long, straggly beard.

“These bikes are modern Chinese replicas of a Soviet replica of a 1930s BMW,” said a smiling Jonathan, a Frenchman who not only leads tours but manages the company’s operations.

Chinese replica of Soviet replica of 1930s BMW. (Photo: Shanghai Sideways).

With me on the pillion and the old lady (technical biker term) in the sidecar, our machine took off in the lead, followed by the four other bikes bearing couples from various Western countries.

Shanghai has the same population as Australia, yet the streets were emptyish and ripe for the taking.

Under the cover of the roar of the engines, I took the opportunity for some mobile Karaoke: “Get your motor running, out on the highway….born to be wi-i-i-ild….”

 Now I started to understand why the Hells Angels took to the road on two wheels. Not for the aggro, not for the drugs, not to annoy the cops and not for the wild women (well, maybe). The thrill of burning along a city street in a pack ignites a feeling of freedom in solidarity with the bros and sisters.

We powered along narrow boulevards where trees burst with new green life and where elegant, low-rise art deco buildings signalled we were in the French Concession.

This quarter of the city dates back to the days when foreigners lived in protected pockets as they milked profits from China. Jonathan pointed out something interesting: “Houses once inhabited by one foreign family are now packed with people—you can see that by the rows of letter boxes.”

We entered an elegant house that after the revolution in 1949 had become a home to top party officials. But China has flipped over to capitalism, and above the door to what is now a modern art gallery is faded calligraphy irrelevant to modern times: “The Spirit of Mao Zedong will live for eternity”.

We swerved at low speed through a labyrinth of walled lanes and reached another boulevard where morning strollers grinned at us and took photos. They didn’t seem to be at all intimated by this horde of faux bikers.

Downtown old Shanghai. (Photo: Michael Day).

Back on the hog, I swapped my perch on pillion for the sidecar and began to cruise the world in an armchair. It felt a mixture of the comical and imperious. My ear to ear grin lasted all the way to People’s Park where lots of older couples were milling about.

“Anybody guess what this is?” Jonathan asked our group, labelled in my mind “the Sideways Angels”. He then quickly removed our ignorance.“It’s a marriage market.”

Parents were inspecting notice boards where CVs advertised potential mates for their offspring. Photos were clearly not important but apparently every notice listed the worldly goods and potential income the young person could bring to the marriage. The oldies negotiate and then their kids meet to see if it could all work out. Harmony is important. After retirement, the parents often move in with the young couple. Not a bad idea for Australia. Look out RSVP.

Zooming past museums to the Communist era—ironically very close to giant billboards for Mercedes-Benz and Tiffany diamonds — we arrived at the famous Bund, the riverfront of Shanghai.

Bank on the Bund. (Photo: Chris Day).

In the 1930s this city was the decadence capital of the world, home to opium dens, gambling, sing-song girls and the armour-plated Chevrolets of gangsters with bodyguards riding on the running boards, toting Tommy guns.

Now it’s all peaceful. The impressive stone buildings of banks and business houses still flank the road but today the red flag of Communist China flies from each one.

Across the river are the towers of capitalism, including one of the tallest buildings in the world, the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre.

Somehow a squadron of side-car machines seemed a perfect counterpoint to this buttoned-down world of finance.

The climax of the run was our arrival at the market in the old city. Our gang dismounted and plunged into the narrow, crowded lanes, gobbling up spicy shish-kebabsand delicious pancakes. We then formed a farewell circle to thank our drivers.

Pancakes for the bikers. (Photo: Chris Day).

Removing my helmet, goggles and mental mask, I morphed into Mr Respectable and returned reluctantly to civilian life.



Shanghai Sideways: