We dedicate this special section to the makers of Beijing – the entrepreneurs, crafters, and the movers and shakers who provide new ways of experiencing this great city. We know there are many out there who have exciting endeavors in mind but are just waiting for the right moment. So we hope that you find inspiration in each maker whom we’ve invited to participate in this feature.
You might have been to Beijing’s many famous landmarks, but how about going beyond the usual and cruising in the sidecar of a 750cc motorbike? Yes, you can do it, and Gael Thoreau’s the guy behind Beijing Sideways, which offers a thrilling ride in a roofless vehicle while you get to see the mountainous landscapes around Beijing and visit its less-known hutongs and markets. Thoreau, who caught the ‘Beijing bug’ after arriving here in 1999 to work for a garment trading company, is truly an expat insider, knowing the streets and alleys of the capital like the back of his hand.
beijingkids: What prompted you to start Beijing Sideways? Is it something related to your profession or hobby?
Thoreau: It is completely somewhere out of blue! I bought a sidecar as a form of transportation when I arrived in Beijing as they were quite popular among French expats at the time. And naturally, I brought my guests and visitors around using the sidecar. We would also make weekend trips to the mountains and the Great Wall. A friend of mine told me I should have people pay for this and one day he sent me his visiting boss from Paris
How did you face the first few challenges that came along your way?
I can’t think of any specific challenge but the biggest may be changing from being a maker of your product to a company manager.
What’s that one memorable trip that helped you build your brand?
We had so many stories in the decade that we have been running, including a few marriage proposals on the Great Wall (such as men bringing the question with a ring to their loved one, not to us, of course!). One of my better memories though was when I did a tour for an old Beijinger lady. She was in her sixties and had a long life full of accomplishments, including being a well-renowned scientist. But in a tour with me, she reconnected with the hutongs and her childhood, shed quite a few tears remembering the starvation in the 1960s after the Great Leap Forward, and how her grandmother would bring her to and from a bell square where there would be food distribution sometimes. We also found her old house that was not far from the present location of one of the TRB branches.
Her emotion and realization that so many Beijingers have forgotten about their past in the quick run toward the new era had comforted me in the idea of my work.
Many people say that Beijing is a land of opportunities. What can you tell people who are planning to set up small businesses here?
I’m not sure that Beijing is still the land of opportunity it once was. What I can remind them is about this first business killer: the rent pressure. When you wake up every day, you need to know that you have to start working to pay for your office and home rent, and your staff as well. It’s also one reason why finding staff is more difficult.
What’s that one thing that makes you stay in Beijing?
Despite my love for the city, it’s really my family that keeps me here!
Explore Beijing’s sights with Beijing Sideways. Contact Thoreau at WeChat ID: GaelThoreau or 139 1133 4947.
This is the digital version of the Making the New Beijing feature article in the beijingkids November 2018 Beijing Makers issue
Photo: Lens Studio