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Pudong, Shanghai, China. Wu Guoyong: “This is the largest shared-bicycle graveyard I’ve photographed. There are more than 100,000 bicycles neatly arranged on a vast tract of unused land. It looks to me like a colourful field of flowers.” Pictures: Wu Guoyong

China’s bike sharing bubble has burst – drone photography captures its casualties rusting in ‘bicycle graveyards’

Photographer Wu Guoyong travelled across the country to capture what happened when bike-sharing reached saturation point, inviting questions about the efficiency of China’s industrial machine

Imperial China’s four great inventions – papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass – were milestones in the long march of human progress. Last year, China’s state-run media highlighted the nation’s “four great new inventions” of modern times, but astute readers were quick to point out that high-speed trains, mobile-phone payments, e-commerce and shared-bicycle schemes had all been in use elsewhere for quite some time. The argument seemed to be that China’s taking these to a new level was akin to invention.

For bike-share companies built on concepts first seen elsewhere, for instance, the real innovation was app-driven “dockless” bicycles than could be unlocked and peddled almost anywhere, as long as you had your smartphone handy.  

I was an early adopter, having long been dismayed that the Bicycle Kingdom had become an Automobile Republic. In the years before Ofo or Mobike, theft was a real concern, seriously limiting where you could take a bike. It was liberating to cycle to a subway station, park the thing and forget about it.  

One day, however, while peddling a Mobike home, I noticed two more in a canal. With President Xi Jinping calling the shared-economy “China’s gift to the world”, and the government dishing out generous tax breaks to the industry, saturation point had already been reached in the capital; there were too many bikes vying for too few commuters.

As I Ofoed my way through 2017, I found discarded bicycles everywhere: abandoned in parks or blocking alleyways. Despite their obvious benefits, the two-wheeled debris piled-up, exposing both public and corporate negligence. An environmental solution was becoming an environmental problem. The bikes were left broken or damaged, prompting local authorities to dump the excess machines en masse in makeshift compounds.

“I first saw the bicycle graveyards on TV,” says Shenzhen-based photographer Wu Guoyong of his decision to photo­graph the man-made aluminium mountains. “I didn’t catch the location, so I asked my friends on WeChat if they knew where the bicycles had been left. I eventually found out and took my drone to take some pictures.”

Wu is a relative newcomer to China’s contem­porary photo­graphy scene, though his interest was sparked in the early years of reform, when a cameraman came to shoot a hydroelectric facility he was working at in Tianjin, in China’s northeast. “I just saw him take pictures and thought that looked interesting, so I bought a Fenghuang camera. It was 1984 and cost me 180 yuan when my salary was just 40 yuan a month.”

Born in what Wu calls “the ancient heart of China” – near the prefecture-level city of Xiangyang, in Hubei province – in 1963, he studied hydraulic engineering in the provincial capital of Wuhan before joining the ranks of state employees tasked with managing China’s waterways.

Hongkou, Shanghai. “Shikumen are traditional buildings in Shanghai. This dense form of low-rise architecture is now attracting developers and lucrative urban-renewal projects. The open space was created through demolition and is just acting as a temporary place for dumping shared bicycles. So you might call this the most expensive shared-bicycle graveyard in history because the surrounding property price has exceeded 70,000 yuan [HK$80,700] per square metre.”

“In those days, you didn’t choose where you wanted to work, your work unit sent you. I spent five or six years in Tianjin, then came back to Hubei. I found my way to Shenzhen in 1992, working on bridges and pipes, that kind of thing.”

Contributing his expertise to the con­struction of a new city would prove taxing yet lucrative. The 1990s saw Wu focused on raising a family and making money. But, in 2008, with his children grown, he returned to his passion for photography. “I bought a digital camera in 2008 because I began travelling,” he says. “I just took pictures of pretty things, as I had no real conception of art photo­graphy. In 2011, I was able to retire early and focus on photography.”

A few years later, a mutual friend intro­­duced Wu to Shenzhen-based photo­grapher Li Zhengde. “Zhengde made a huge impression on me,” Wu says. “He taught me that a photographer could be an artist, that we could ask social questions with a camera. Every time I left his house, I borrowed at least two books.”

Seeking to emulate Li’s view that a photographer’s voice can be as powerful as that of a writer, Wu invested in a Shenzhen-designed-and-built DJI drone and set about photographing the city. His signature style, and commitment to wait for the correct light and conditions – sometimes checking into remote hotels or staying up all night – has won Wu praise from his peers and a commission from the Nanshan government to contribute to two photo albums promoting the district.

Yet Wu was still looking for that all-important “social question” to ask and, when the bikes began to pile-up, he saw the drone would enable him to illustrate the phenomenon from a different perspective.

“I went to Beijing, Shanghai, Hefei, you name it,” says Wu, who visited 15 major cities for the project.

Chinese bike-sharing firms pull 3,000 dumped bikes out of rivers

The result is an award-winning series called “No Place to Place” that – while captivatingly beautiful – questions the brutal efficiency of China’s industrial machine, as well as the human capacity to neglect commodities on a scale unseen in history. Wu is of a generation, after all, that once deemed a bicycle to be one of “the four big things” that everyone in China aspired to own, along with a sewing machine, a wrist-watch and a radio.

“I see shared bikes as useful, but the cemeteries expose a moral problem in the landscape of China,” says the photo­grapher. “We’re throwing away bikes! That just doesn’t seem right.”

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