Where I live, a bicycle is a necessity of life. It’s the only sensible way to get around a city like Amsterdam with its winding canals and ditto streets. Everyone here rides: men in three-piece suits, women in stiletto heels and kids on their way to school.
If you live in Japan, Europe, or North America and own a bicycle, there is a good chance that a number of its parts were manufactured in Taiwan. From ultra-light carbon fibre frames and the latest electric, smart and green technologies to various bike components ranging from tires, pedals, chains, saddles, grips, and even bike carriers for vehicles, Taiwan’s bicycle industry remains a global leader despite recent declines in exports and sales.
The narrator Ch’eng calls himself a bike fanatic. That is to say, a collector of antique bikes, bike parts and store signs of defunct bicycle repair shops. His quest is to find his father’s Lucky bike, lost since the day he disappeared. Along the way, Ch’eng meets other cycle fanatics, a photojournalist with his own missing father and stolen bike, a woman who makes butterfly collages and another named Shizuko who ties the threads together.
Bike Notes connect these many narrative strands the way tire rims give purpose to their many spokes. There are seven Notes with illustrations of vintage bikes. Take the 1915 BSA Territorial Modele de Luxe 1A with its rifle mounted on the down tube. Bike Notes IV gives us the history of war bikes.
Armoured units used bicycles in combat as early as 1898, when the Americans suppressed riots in Havana. The military use of bicycles may go back even earlier – for instance, to Italian bicycle messengers in 1875. Bicycles in Warlists some of the advantages of war bicycles. For starters, bicycles were as fast and agile as cavalry, but didn’t have to eat, drink, shit, piss or sleep like a horse. A bicycle also won’t kick or bite. Even more important, a bicycle unit doesn’t consume gasoline like a motorcycle unit. And riding a bike is much quieter than riding a horse or driving a vehicle.
During WWII, the Imperial Japanese Army deployed the Silverwheel Squad to conquer Singapore. Sixty thousand soldiers and ten thousands bicycles attacked from the border between Thailand and Malaysia. The soldiers deployed whatever came to hand. They found vines to quench their thirst. They learned to make war from the boughs of a banyan tree. They captured Indian mahouts to harness the strength of their elephants. The jungle became an instrument of war.
When the war was over, those elephants were taken away from their jungle home. They became the spoils of the victor. In one of the most beautiful passages in The Stolen Bicycle, the elephants are marched out of the jungle headed for distant destinations. Not all of them survive.
When the matriarch collapsed, the other elephants all stopped in their tracks and gathered round. They stroked each other’s backs with their trunks, humming with incredible tenderness.