Born to Be Tamed: The Biker Gangs Revving on China’s Roads

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With red tape and social stigma, motorcycle clubs are finding it’s hard to be outlaws.

SHANGHAI — It’s an unusually snowy afternoon in January, but a typical Saturday for the Red Devils at their suburban clubhouse. Decked out in vests emblazoned with a smiling devil head wreathed in flames, the men sip Pu’er tea from thimble-sized cups and joke around by the bar. Occasionally, the powerful roar of a revving engine can be heard from the motorcycle shop downstairs.

At the table, a serious man sits deep in thought. His well-worn club vest is adorned with numerous badges, and his fingers are decorated with large rings, two with devil heads and another inscribed with “184 MC” — a coded reference to the Red Devils.

“We are a brotherhood. One for all, and all for one,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Yang Hancheng, 37, is the president of Red Devils Motorcycle Club China, the Shanghai chapter of a multinational motorcycle club represented in nearly 20 countries. Membership is restricted to adult males who own motorbikes with a 600cc engine or higher. Club membership numbers are kept secret, but more than 10 men aged 26 to 50 were at the clubhouse when Sixth Tone visited, some tattooed with the club’s motto: the English-language phrase “love and respect.” Members must follow club rules, including wearing their club vests while riding and showing up to meetings on time. If they violate regulations, the sergeant at arms, who’s in charge of enforcing discipline, could strip them of the right to wear the club logo — or even ban them outright.

We are a brotherhood. One for all, and all for one.
- Yang Hancheng, president of Red Devils Motorcycle Club China

In the clubhouse, which features a shrine to a deified third-century general, Yang introduces his band of brothers: “We have all sorts here. He works in an advertising company. I have my own shop. This guy works at a car rental company—”

“A state-owned enterprise,” the man in question interjects.

“A state-owned enterprise,” Yang continues. “He has his own trade company. And my old brother here, he has his own tea shop: That’s why we’re able to drink such good tea.”

The original Red Devils chapters were established in North America and are affiliates of the Hells Angels, a globally known outlaw motorcycle gang that claims to comprise “motorcycle enthusiasts” but engages in criminal activity, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Reports of motorcycle gangs committing crimes, as well as television series like American outlaw motorcycle club drama “Sons of Anarchy,” have reinforced the reputation of such groups as dangerous in the popular imagination.

Red Devil members show off their club jackets in Shanghai, Jan. 27, 2018. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Red Devil members show off their club jackets in Shanghai, Jan. 27, 2018. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

While Yang counts Hells Angels members among his good friends, he distances his club from the criminal reputation of his overseas counterparts. “We have a lot of brothers around the world: We can’t guarantee that what every brother does is right. They have their own way of life, and we have ours,” says Yang, a husband and father who joined the club in 2008. “I know a lot of people [in China] think we’re gangsters, but actually, we’re not — we’re just bikers. We just love riding bikes and helping each other, caring for one another,” he says. And Yang dismisses assumptions that being part of such a club means owning guns and peddling drugs. “If we did this, the police would have arrested us a long time ago,” he says of his chapter.

The Red Devils may be “just bikers,” but membership is no minor matter. Candidates must first serve as “prospects,” carrying out menial tasks like cleaning, making drinks for clubhouse guests, or ferrying inebriated club members home late at night. After they’ve proved themselves trustworthy — which usually takes between sixth months and a year — they become full-patch members, meaning they must tattoo themselves with the club’s logo and add it to the backs of their vests. “If you want to become our brother, you’ll be with us for the rest of our lives,” says Yang, adding that prospects are sometimes moved to tears when they become full-patch members. “We need to know if you’re deserving of our trust.”

I know a lot of people [in China] think we’re gangsters, but actually, we’re not — we’re just bikers.
- Yang Hancheng, president of Red Devils Motorcycle Club China

Belonging to the club involves weekly meetings and epic motorbiking excursions, like last year’s trip to southwestern China’s Yunnan province. But there’s more to it than that. Members are expected to lend a hand in other areas, from helping with a brother’s wedding decorations to holding surprise birthday celebrations. A tenet of the club is that members should trust other members 100 percent, so much that they would even feel comfortable leaving their wives and children in their brothers’ care.

For club prospect Xu Zhiqiang, a 25-year-old who owns a vape business, Red Devils membership means adventure, personal growth, and community. As he fixes a cappuccino behind the clubhouse bar — a typical prospect task — he recalls precious memories from motorcycling with the Red Devils: a bright-eyed young girl selling matches by the roadside, unspoiled natural beauty, and hills topped with pure white clouds.

The Red Devils are hardly the only biker club to spring up in China in recent years. The country’s first motorbike clubs date back to the late 1990s, says Zhai Fanghu, the founder of “Weifengtang Motorcycle Club,” an online motorbike forum that has been running since 2001. In the past, heavyweight motorcycles capable of long-distance travelling — the type the Red Devils ride — were often brought into China through unlawful means, says Yang. But things started to change after 2005 when foreign brands such as Harley-Davidson began importing to China, sparking increased interest in recreational biking and, in turn, motorcycle clubs.

It’s a hobby that can be prohibitively expensive, meaning many of China’s so-called bikers are wealthy men with respectable jobs. Katrina Wu, a sales associate at a Shanghai Harley-Davidson dealership, says the imported bikes cost 98,000 to 600,000 yuan ($15,500 to $95,000) new, plus up to 320,000 yuan for a Shanghai license plate. People often join local clubs to “be cool” or meet other bikers, but most clubs aren’t as serious as the Red Devils, she says.

Members of Beijing-based SuperPlayer Motorcycle Club ride in formation, 2017. Courtesy of Xie Zheng’ou

Members of Beijing-based SuperPlayer Motorcycle Club ride in formation, 2017. Courtesy of Xie Zheng’ou

Beijing-based Xie Zheng’ou, 32, says he felt a “hot-blooded impulse” after watching “Sons of Anarchy” and was inspired to start a gang of his own in 2016 with the Harley-Davidson owners he knew. He claims his club, SuperPlayer, is now the biggest in the city, with over 50 full-patch members and more than 100 prospective members aged 25 to 65, whose jobs range from CEO to taxi driver. Last year, Xie quit his day job at a finance company to dedicate more time to the club, which runs charity and commercial activities on top of its motorbiking excursions.

There are still rules, of course. When riding around Beijing, members must wear their vests adorned with the club logo: a skull with pointy rabbit ears. Prospective members must be unanimously voted in to become full-patch bikers and must meet three requirements before they can join: owning a Harley-Davidson, new or secondhand; riding at least 3,000 kilometers with the club; and being acquainted with all 50 existing patched members. Club logo tattoos are optional.

Of course, we do away with any bad Hells Angels-type things: drugs, guns, these kinds of gang activities — we don’t copy this. This is a socialist country — you can’t do that.
- Cui Wei, founder of Shanghai-based motorcycle club Roaring Chorus

There’s a similar contrast between the tough biker image and community-minded approach at Shanghai-based motorcycle club Roaring Chorus. Club founder and serial restaurateur Cui Wei, who wears a vest emblazoned with the club logo of a snarling ape encircled by a large wheel and bolts of lightning, organizes club meals and activities, including a past vintage-themed group event. One of the club’s rules — that members must own an American bike — means many members are well-off businessmen. Like the other clubs, Cui’s is all-male — partly to respect U.S. biker tradition, and partly because members’ wives may object to them belonging to such a close-knit group if there are other women present, he says.

“I hope we can ride together until we’re old — to keep riding this Harley until I’m old — so old that we can’t ride anymore,” says Cui of his gang. “We can still look at our bikes then, and everyone can reminisce about the wonderful life we’ve had.”

Frustrated by the lack of structure in his previous club, 42-year-old Cui founded Roaring Chorus in 2016. But while he created a rule book and insists on keeping his group traditional and authentic, Cui doesn’t want anything to do with the darker side of overseas biker clubs. “Of course, we do away with any bad Hells Angels-type things: drugs, guns, these kinds of gang activities — we don’t copy this. This is a socialist country — you can’t do that,” says Cui. Road safety is also a major concern for him; he hit a pedestrian with his bike when he was 19, and although the person wasn’t injured, the incident has made him extremely careful.

Unfortunately for China’s biker gangs, not everyone sees their pastime as innocent. Motorcycle clubs are commonly regarded as dangerous, hazardous, and indecent in China, partly due to their alternative appearance and lifestyle, says motorbike forum founder Zhai.

Motorcycles are restricted or even outright banned in a number of cities and are prohibited on motorways in many provinces, according to Zhai. In Shanghai, only riders with limited “A” license plates that can go for up to 320,000 yuan can ride in the city center — and even then, many roads remain off-limits. The high price of plates is hurting Harley-Davidson sales locally, says sales associate Wu.

In December last year, authorities sent text messages to registered Harley-Davidson owners in Shanghai, telling them that they could no longer modify their bikes, a core component of Harley-Davidson culture. The policy outraged Harley-Davidson owners, who felt they were being treated like criminals despite buying their bikes legally and spending thousands on official license plates. To Cui, the policy evokes the Cultural Revolution era, when outward displays of extravagance were disparaged as bourgeois.

Cui Wei's Harley-Davidson and club jacket are fixed with metal trinkets, such as this helmet-wearing skull, that he orders custom-made from Japan, Shanghai, March 13, 2018. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Cui Wei's Harley-Davidson and club jacket are fixed with metal trinkets, such as this helmet-wearing skull, that he orders custom-made from Japan, Shanghai, March 13, 2018. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Authorities tend to state that the restrictive measures are necessary for safety, traffic congestion, and pollution reasons, says forum owner Zhai. The large number of motorcycle accidents in the 1980s, in part due to poorly made local bikes and low awareness of riding safety, has led to a common saying that “no biker made it through the ’80s,” says Zhai. Authorities may have also been worried that city streets would fill with low-end locally made motorbikes, which can quickly end up grimy, with peeling paint and parts messily held together with tape. From an economic perspective, motorbikes bring in far less tax revenue to cities than cars, meaning municipal governments have little incentive to encourage people to use them, explains Zhai.

Even now, many motorbike clubs operate in a legal gray area, says Zhai. In China, organizations must register with the municipal civil affairs bureau, but most biker clubs don’t qualify for approval as they lack the necessary structure and rules.

Cui worries that regulations introduced beginning about two decades ago are tightening, putting the future of motorcycling in China in jeopardy. “We buy the world’s most expensive Harleys, fitted with the world’s most expensive license plates, riding on the world’s most red-taped roads,” says a visibly discouraged Cui.

The restrictions have seen many swap their Harley-Davidsons — due to local restrictions on modifications — for other brands or even give up riding altogether. But Cui is determined to persist. “In this kind of environment, we keep riding our bikes — actually, we could call it ‘finding joy in the midst of difficulty,’” says Cui. To him, club membership is for life — after all, his group’s motto is “Roaring Forever, Forever Roaring.”

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Kenrick Davis
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