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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Bamboo Bicyclist Improving the Quality of Life for the People of China

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

David Wang was a senior at Pomona College when he won a Fulbright scholarship. Armed with the new funding and prestige, he packed up and flew from Southern California to the cultural hub of Xi’an, China, to study what life is like for young people in Asia.

Soon thereafter, China Youthology, a research company that helps corporations like Nike and Pepsi understand Generations Y and Z, hired him. He moved to Beijing for the job, where he was quickly commissioned by Mercedes-Benz to study Chinese citizens’ mobility needs and behaviors.

While there, Wang noticed—couldn’t help but notice—the devastating amount of pollution poisoning Beijing’s air. Which got him to thinking about how he could translate his research into action, realizing that for scholars like him, “experience and participation are just as important as observation.”

So Wang started Bamboo Bicycles Beijing, China’s first open, do-it-yourself bamboo bicycle workshop. In an attempt to stem the toxic output of Beijing’s almost six million cars, Wang stripped the bicycle-building process down to its basics so that, within two days, four people could finish a bamboo frame.

"Many people don't anticipate how liberating it feels to make your own mobility with your own hands. When I see the joy on their faces after the first ride, I want to keep making them."

He originally set out to make just 25 bicycles with Chinese kids, but then people kept asking him to more build bicycles with them, and now he’s taught at least 100 people how to make 100 bamboo bicycles.

It motivates him deeply “each time someone completes his or her own bamboo bicycle and rides it for the first time,” he says. “Many people don't anticipate how liberating it feels to make your own mobility with your own hands. When I see the joy on their faces after the first ride, I want to keep making them. Each time someone bikes back after a few weeks to tell me that they're proud to share their bike with others, I'm even more motivated.”

Inspired by Wang’s work, others have started their own bamboo bicycle workshops elsewhere—in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Fujian, and Shanghai so far.

Meanwhile, Wang had partnered with local schools, tracked down villagers for their excess bamboo, and created build-a-bike-at-home kits. He hopes that by empowering people to craft bikes, he can get them to think differently about the way they move around the city—and about how else they might be able to improve their environment.

“I hope that I will have contributed to making people feel more confident in themselves and their ability to build and create,” he adds. “I want to be someone who makes people feel like they can do big things.”

Wang is from Brookline, Massachusetts, a progressive town that shaped his values. “Not everybody has the chance to have the many experiences I had growing up in a diverse and affluent community,” he says. “I was able to participate in a China exchange program in high school which basically set the direction for all of my research and work.”

At Pomona, he recalls wanting to learn Chinese but “a Chinese major didn't fit,” he says. “I wasn't interested in the historical literature but rather in using Chinese language and cultural theory to uncover what is happening in China right now. Asian Studies was the perfect combination of language tools, anthropological theory, history, and economics for me to make sense of the experiences I was having.”

Within a few years, Wang envisions himself leading grassroots groups to design bicycle paths across China, working with start-ups to re-invent urban mobility, and perhaps working within government to improve the quality of life for China's growing population.

“Whatever it may be,” he says, “I'm very certain that I will be very independent with my own organization leading a team of fun and thoughtful individuals who enjoy taking action.”

“Research alone is just the beginning,” he says. “It should inspire you to act and create something new.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).