Spin City

Don’t panic if you’re stuck in Beijing’s rush-hour traffic. You can
always hail a tricycle pedaled by an octogenarian to snake through
the gridlock. In Manila, you can beat the traffic on a toy-size
pedicab powered by a 13-year-old schoolboy. Lost in the back alleys
of Penang? Any licensed trishaw rider will be more than happy to
scoot you through the maze as adeptly as the outlaw becak riders of
Jakarta, cycloists of Hanoi or tricicloists of Macao tending their
own urban labyrinths.

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.

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