Locking Up My Bike

When I bought my new bike, at the forefront of my mind was “this is so going to get stolen.” Bike theft is so common here that my roommate Lenny tells me he thinks of bikes as a disposable product. I think of it more like gambling. But in this game, “winning” means having your bike stolen, and the more you gamble, the higher chances you have of winning. For this reason I always go with as cheap a bike as I can find. It just has to be fully functional and big enough for me to ride. (If I weren’t so tall, I could find bikes for much cheaper.)

When I got my new bike, I also bought bike locks. I wasn’t sure which kind to buy… I know that some of them are incredibly easy to break. The U-locks for instance, can be opened with a ballpoint pen, I understand. Not cool. No U-lock for me. So which lock is good?

The clerk was amazingly useless. She just kept recommending the expensive ones, and she couldn’t even tell me why they were better. The one that was supposedly “best” was a thick chain lock. In Hanghzou I used to rely totally on the kind of lock that is attached to the back wheel and I never once had my bike stolen. So I bought one of each of those locks. Two locks.

When it came time to park, I realized one reason why bike theft is so common in China. When I used to bike all around the campus of the University of Florida, there were bike racks everywhere. Really sturdy metal frames, set in the ground with concrete. You felt pretty secure when you locked the frame of your bike to one of those. But bike racks are relatively rare here in Shanghai. So I’m finding the chain lock I bought to be of very limited value.

One thing a lot of people do is take their bike into their building and up the elevator. Then they either keep it in the hall by their apartment door, or they actually keep it in their apartment. I don’t like that method at all. Bikes should be kept outside, thieves or no.

bike locks

My apartment complex has this underground parking garage/mosquito farm. I’m not sure how safe it keeps my bike, but it seems safe. In addition, there are locks set in the ground that can lock your bike wheel securely to the ground (above). You have to pay if you want a key to one of those “ground locks,” though.

Left Note

I noticed that a lot of them are unused. I also saw that one other biker used a chain lock to lock his bike securely to one of the empty ground locks. I decided that was a good idea, so I did that too. When I returned to my bike a day or two later, I found this hand-written note on my bike (left).

Without even reading the note, I knew why I had gotten it. But, dilligent student of Chinese that I am, I wanted to know exactly what the note said. Did it threaten me with something, or what? The handwriting was really hard for me to make out, however. I found that I could only decipher about half of it on my own. I enlisted my girlfriend’s help, and it actually took some effort for her to decipher every character.

Can you read it? Take the challenge!

When you’re ready for the answer, drag your cursor from one bracket to the other: [ 如需要 / 地桩锁 / 请到物 / 业申请! / 不要占用 / 别人的地 / 桩锁!!! ]

In English it basically means, “If you need a ground lock, please apply at the office! Do not occupy other people’s ground locks!!!”

I found a thick metal pipe I can lock my bike to instead. Let’s see how long I can keep this bike.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I think the first character of the note should be “如” rather than “为”. If it’s “为” it makes no sense.

  2. well, his hand-writing is terrible but still can be recognized by most ppl. It says: Do not occupy other’s ground lock, if you really need to use it, please apply for one at the apartment management.

  3. jimyan,

    Yeah, you’re right. My girlfriend definitely said it was 为 rather than 如, though. Didn’t make sense to me either. I’ll change it.

  4. Kastner,

    I was posting that more for non-native speakers.

  5. If they’re anything like the locks in our basement, the framework is bolted in, not welded. It can be removed with a wrench. Some anti-theft measure! But the managment makes RMB 50 every time they install a new basement lock.

    I’ve had my bike for about 5 months. So far, no problems. I always lock it to a post or something rooted in the ground, even when I leave it at the subway station bike watching station. I often return home after 10:00 in the evening when the bike watcher has gone home and my bike is along among the orphan bikes and rusty wrecks. I’ve never tried to leave it over night.

    By the way, why don’t you take the bus more often John? There are some great busses that really complement the subway lines. If you know where to get on, you can always get a seat. And some lines are little used. Line 02 on Huaihai Lu always has a seat. But even the crowded busses are never more crowded than subway line 1.

    I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks Sinosplice!

    p.s. That hand-written note might as well be written in a secret code. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to learn to read handwriting?

    p.p.s. I am able to view your website normally, but I have to post through a proxy. I am in Shanghai using ADSL.

  6. So I said his hand-writing is awful…
    It’s true that 如 seems to be 为

  7. coming from someone who recently had his (really nice) bike stolen, I wish you the best of luck 🙂

  8. the first character looks more like 为 to me but then it will make no sense . What awful handwriting. If i wrote like that in my exam papers, my teachers would fail me.
    good luck for your bike.

  9. Wierd. I automatically tried reading that right-to-left, up-and-down, probably because of the paper length. Didn’t make much sense, but neither did 为需要也….

  10. trevelyan,

    Heh, I tried to read it top to bottom at first, too.

  11. i saw a bike thief once… i was waiting for somebody at the lunch break in a university (云大 in kunming) and i put my bike against some wall. i locked it cause i walk in some cantines just to look for the person i was waiting for…. then i wait not so far from my bike (but not right next to it).
    A nice looking guy came, stand next to my bike, and was going to try his bunch of keys on my lock!
    many people around: it was lunch time and that happened in the cantine area!!!!!
    …I just came closer and stare at the guy. when he saw me he went away. if i hadn’t heard of bad stories about people killing eachother with knife (in the same university) i might have done something… instead i just pretend to follow him… how frustrating!

  12. Since my 800 yuan Giant bike was stolen four months after I bought it, I’ve never ridden any new bicycles. Hm chain lock is a nice idea, considering to get a new bike now…If I U-lock it and chain its frame to a tree every time I leave, it should be secure.

    By the way, I don’t think chaining the front wheel to any stationary objects is 100% secure. I’ve heard a guy chained the front wheel of his bike to sth fixed on the ground. When he came back he found the front wheel still there but the other parts of the bike disappeared.

  13. Yah…always chain the rear wheel of your bike. I thought that was common knowledge? And for pete’s sake, don’t use “quick-release” wheels, for obvious reasons.

    I got the heaviest plastic-coated bike chain they had at A-Best. The idea isn’t to prevent theft, but to deter it, and make the bike thief move to the next bike down the line.

  14. It isn’t U-locks that aren’t secure, but U-locks with the round keyholes (thus perfect for a Bic pen). There are U-locks which do not use the round keys.

    (It should be noted that many laptop locks also use round keys. Hurrah!)

  15. My lock is like a u-lock, but it is made up of flexible links instead of hardened metal. I got it at Giant for RMB 50. It has circle key hole. When the key goes in it pushes little teeth located around the circumference of the circle down to varying depths. There are seven tumblers. To pick the lock you would have to get them all to the right depth, then turn the lock. I don’t see how it could be picked with a pen. Is this the kind of lock you are talking about?

    Please rescue me before I destroy all my pins. =)

  16. Laska,

    I think that’s the kind. Try the site I linked to. If those links don’t work, do some searches for “u-lock” and “pen” and you should still be able to find videos of a u-lock being picked with a pen.

  17. Da Xiangchang Says: August 6, 2005 at 2:06 pm

    I remember 3 things about my experience with bikes in China:

    1) Chinese bikes, esp. the cheap kind you buy at Auchan, were HORRIBLE. With a week of buying one, one of the pedals fell off, and then, the tire went flat! Overall, Chinese products are the WORST-made things I’ve ever used, and bikes are no exceptions.

    2) How fun it was to ride even crappy Chinese bikes, the kind of fun I no longer enjoy. 🙁

    3) How completely out of it most Chinese people (kids?) are when it comes to locking their bikes. I remember teaching in Shanghai, and a bunch of my kids telling me how they’ve lost multiple bikes before yet never changing the method in which they lock their bikes!!! They would usually 1) lock the tire to the frame or 2) lock the tire to some immovable object. Either method blows cuz with the first, a guy can just pick up your bike and run away, and with the second, just detach the tire. Those kids were the most unthinking bastards I’ve ever met in my life! Keeping your bike safe is very simple: 1) buy a heavy-duty chain and lock, and 2) lock your FRAME to some immovable object. Case closed.

  18. I am happy to report that although there are pins in China of the correct circumference to pick a u-lock, the plastic of the pens is so brittle that they all crumble long before the task is accomplished. your bikes are safe.

Leave a Reply