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Factory Five keeps the beat

Published May 7, 2012

Editor's note:The following article is part of a package of stories on the Chinese bike market than ran in the April 15 issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

Nicole Formosa

SHANGHAI—As Chinese consumers crave popular brands from the Western world, Tyler Bowa is busy praising the virtues of the “Made in China” label.

“I think there’s a big misconception about stuff made in China,” said Bowa, standing in Shanghai’s hub of funky fixie culture, Factory Five. “There are some amazing products.”

Bowa, a Toronto native and bike polo player, moved to Shanghai in January 2009 to be an architect but accidentally stumbled onto a new career path when he started scavenging and restoring old China-made Phoenix frames and building them into single-speed road bikes. Factory Five, which Bowa owns with two partners—Jeff Liu, who grew up in New Orleans, and Drew Bates, an English expat—is filled with retro rebuilds of Shanghai-made Phoenix Feng Huang roadsters, Flying Pigeons, Forevers and China Post bikes.

They restored the frames, slapped on Brooks saddles and upgraded wheels and started selling the bikes for around 3,000 yuan ($475). It’s a fairly steep price for local cyclists, but a market quickly emerged.

“That put us on the map, the rebuilds,” Bowa says.

Liu and Bowa used profits from the bike sale to buy tools and rent a small space to work on bikes. It wasn’t much—a large room with one bike stand and a picnic table inside—but it was the first step in creating an urban cycling community that Shanghai had lacked. Everyone was welcome to work on bikes free of charge.

“It was really primitive,” Bowa said. “It was a way for us to say if you like bikes come hang out and we’ll talk about bikes together.”

Bowa knew a small circle of riders from playing bike polo, but at that time no one in Shanghai knew what a fixed-gear bike was and there were no shops catering to an urban crowd. The fixie craze that had already hit Hong Kong and, much earlier, Japan was just starting to trickle into Shanghai, a modern, international city, but one that is still somewhat sheltered compared with other thriving Asia cities.

“Mainland China is really far behind,” Bowa said, relating urban riding to skateboarding, another scene that took much longer to take hold in Shanghai. “It’s one of those things that has reached its peak and is just becoming affordable for everyone.”

Bowa organized the first Shanghai alley cat race in November 2009, which drew about 200 people. Three years later, the number of racers has more than tripled and this year’s race attracted two-dozen sponsors, including mainstream brands Specialized, Knog and Lee. The original community hub space has grown into a three-room retail space, lounge, office and work space tucked in the back of a nondescript building off Shanghai’s busy Jiangsu Road, the walls splashed with brightly colored murals and decorated with a rainbow of rims, hubs and saddles, reflecting the current trend for customization.

Last year, Bowa started publishing 48x15, Shanghai’s first English-language urban cycling lifestyle magazine, focusing on fashion, music, food and riding in Shanghai. Layout and design are done in-house (before Factory Five, Liu worked at a design firm). Bowa printed 2,000 copies the first run and also offered it as a digital download on the Issuu site. Bowa lost money on the first edition but broke even on the second. A third issue is planned to be half in Chinese.

Along with the reconditioned Chinese classics, Bowa has started selling Factory Five-branded steel lugged and TIG-welded aluminum frames. He also sells aftermarket parts from Brooks, Shimano, Thomson, Fyxation, Sugino, Tange and H Plus Son. The average selling price for bikes rolling out of Factory Five is 6,000 yuan ($950), and Bowa said he has sold more than 100 in the past six months.

As an increasing number of brands look for the secret to tapping into China’s potential high-end market, Bowa recommends cultivating a culture first. As an example, his website promotes urban cycling in Shanghai through his own brands, but he also publishes a list of all the shops in the city, including Factory Five’s competitors. He organizes barbecues, “Beer Bash” rides and movie nights, and still opens his stores to anyone who wants to work on their own bike.

“Demand is one thing. We spend most of our energy being liaisons to the community,” he said.

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