Bobbing and weaving around Tercels and sacred cows alike, rickshaws are the true road warriors of Asia. In the annals of manpowered transit, they're probably the final chapter. Yet, while they may be on their last spokes, there are still a few roads where these rolling anachronisms are finding ready fares-and political controversy.
Born in Japan about 150 years ago, rickshaws have since served as primary street transit in cities all over Asia. Most are pedaled bicycle contraptions, but a few of the original hand-pulled devices remain. Some rickshaws come fully loaded-with stereos, potted plants and a horn section. Others are semi-upgraded wheelbarrows. Some have front passenger seating, some have rear, some side, and almost all of them have lousy brakes. But for enthusiasts like Lonely Planet Publications founder Tony Wheeler and photographer Richard I'Anson, most of these vintage Asian cabs are worth a spin before they go the way of the Fiero.
The two hit the road on a rickshaw odyssey that covered a dozen cities in nine countries across Asia, a trip that would leave no trishaw, tricycle or triciclo fleet untested. They bounced on the becaks of Indonesia, sampled some sidecars in the Philippines, hunt-ed down the rickshaw remains of Hong Kong and combed the squalid streets of Calcutta, chronicling the ride in a photo book called Chasing Rickshaws, Lonely Planet's first foray into large-format books.
'Over the years I'd ridden on a lot of rickshaws in a lot of countries,' says Wheeler, a former engineer whose series of guidebooks covers most of the globe. 'I was interested in them from an engineering standpoint and also because they're dying out in most places. Richard had been talking to me for a while about doing some sort of photographic book. Finally I told him, 'Look, I want to do something on rickshaws.' They'd always been part of my travels through Asia, and it was good timing to chase them around and learn more about them.'
In Dhaka, the bustling capital of Bangladesh, you don't have to chase too far. It's the world's unofficial rickshaw capital and a window to the way it was when bicycle taxis ruled the roads of Asia. There are nearly half a million cycle-rickshaws serving 8 million residents. Swarming around cars and buses while muscling motorized taxis off the main roads, the local rickshaw fleet has left so little space for other vehicles that the government has banned any more licenses. Two-thirds of Dhaka's rickshaws are now unlicensed, but otherwise, it's business as usual-and a booming one at that. Bangladesh's waves of rickshaws account for about a third of the nation's entire transport revenues-about twice the revenue of Bangladesh Biman, the national airline.
It makes for some of the most aesthetically pleasing traffic around. 'We'd look out of our hotel window,' recalls Wheeler, 'and it would just be a sea of them-a huge mess of rickshaws. About 50 to every car. Most of the cities we visited had fairly utilitarian rickshaws, but Dhaka's were different. They combined art with commerce.'
No respectable set of wheels dares hit the road without proper adornments-like a jar of plastic flowers bolted in front of handlebars laced in multicolored streamers. Elaborately embroidered folding tops are also a must, hanging above bright seats and a personalized, handpainted panel covering the rear axle. The finishing touch is a shiny bell to fend off accidents, which occur by the dozen. 'You see them crashing into each other,' says Wheeler, 'but everywhere you go there are little roadside repair places where spokes are replaced and wheels are straightened. There's even a main street completely dedicated to bicycle parts dealers.'
Which is hard to find in downtown Hong Kong these days. The island was once a rickshaw hub and one of the first depots for the original Japanese jinrikisha, a hand-pulled cart introduced in the mid-19th century. It was initially used solely for transporting goods, but eventually humans climbed aboard, and the vehicle started showing up with modifications in other cities throughout the subcontinent. By the turn of the century, Hong Kong had its own growing rickshaw fleet-and thousands of them were soon rolling wealthy families home to estates, and courtesans to the nearest brothel. These days they're nearly extinct-prosperity, modern traffic and a teeming subway system pushing all but eight local rickshaws off the road.Hong Kong's last eight drivers now command the second highest rickshaw rates in Asia (edged out by Singapore). A veteran of the dwindling fleet is Lui Luk-a driver from the old guard who remembers charging only a few cents for a ride across town during the rickshaw boom of the '40s. At age 70, Luk has now put his rickshaw up for sale (as have his seven colleagues)-but for the time being, he's happy to take you anywhere, or not, if the price is right. As Wheeler discovered the hard way, $20 can literally get you nowhere with Luk and his band. 'We rounded up all but three of the last Hong Kong rickshaw riders and took a group photo,' he recalls. 'And then each of them charged us twenty dollars. So for a hundred dollars we didn't go anywhere.'
You'll get a better deal in Beijing. The fares are decent (for $100 you can cover most of China), and you'll get a chance to be lectured on fitness by happy, healthy 81-year-olds like Yao Yu Hai-who's been riding a tricycle (Beijing's indigenous rickshaw) for the last 17 years. Some of the world's oldest rickshaw riders are pedaling their wares in China's capital-most of them, like Yao, convinced that they've found everlasting youth on a ramshackle, nonmotorized san lun che ('three-wheeler'). 'There's a real obsession with fitness in China,' explains Wheeler. 'Wherever we went, the rickshaw riders always carried on about health-telling us they'd never felt so young and healthy since they'd started doing this.'
Cold weather is generally not a concern in most of Asia's rickshaw-populated cities. But in northern China some adjustments need to be made. Beijing rickshaws are thus the world's only insulated ones-semi-winterized models furnished with garden shed-style plywood paneling and duvet-like drapes.
The Filipino rickshaw takes a flashier route, the result of the youth movement behind the wheel here. Teens ply the streets of Manila in local padjaks-the world's most fully loaded rickshaws. They bolt onto their BMX-style bikes toy-like sidecars plastered with a pawnshop's worth of passenger bait-old stereo equipment, 12-inch speakers, potted plants, spotlights and a row of horns. 'One guy had so much stuff on his rickshaw that he needed two car batteries,' laughs Wheeler. 'It must have weighed about 300 pounds.'
While holding their own in a few places, most of Asia's rickshaws are at the mercy of cars and local bureaucrats. In Rangoon, sai kaas ('side cars') have been banned during daylight hours. NO RICKSHAW signs are posted all over Hanoi. Licenses are no longer being issued in Indonesia's old imperial city of Yogyakarta, and the manufacture of trishaws has been stopped in Penang. Becaks (Indonesian rickshaws), have faced the most vehement opposition-particularly in Jakarta, where a vice-governor once called them 'the last example of man exploiting man.' Now completely outlawed in the capital, rickshaws are routinely seized and dumped at sea.
'In most countries there has been a concerted effort to wipe them out,' says Wheeler. 'Modern traffic has helped accomplish this, but it's also because rickshaws are looked upon as something vaguely incorrect. Whenever anyone talks about what a horror story Calcutta is, for example, they immediately bring up the rickshaws.'
The debate over whether rickshaws are antiquated exploitation devices continues to filter through many Asian cities, especially Calcutta, the final frontier for the original hand-pulled model. Hauling fares around chaotic, broiling streets for barely enough to live on makes rickshaw pulling one of the world's most undignified jobs. Despite political efforts to ban pullers, there are still about 25,000 working city streets. Most of the impoverished rickshaw men come from the neighboring state of Bihar. They live in squalid 'rickshaw dorms,' where they sleep beside their rented wheels. The scene was too demeaning for Wheeler, who couldn't bring himself to ride a hand-pulled model. 'I could never use a rickshaw in Calcutta,' he admits. 'It's one thing to go on a bicycle rickshaw-but riding one that's hand-pulled feels wrong and unnatural. You could walk just as fast.'
Wheeler and photographer I'Anson indulged everywhere else, though, chatting with drivers and grading the rides. With riders functioning as the main shock absorbers, most left something to be desired in the comfort department. Of all the models, Wheeler liked Penang's the best. 'They're quite safe and comfortable. And it's the right city for them. The traffic is light. It's fairly flat. And you cruise around the streets on warm tropical nights.'
On a good rickshaw in an exotic Asian city, 'it doesn't matter where you go,' adds Wheeler. 'It's just a matter of going.'
FromEscape(July 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.