Chasing rickshaws

Images and impressions of people-powered transport in 12 Asian cities. Text by Tony Wheeler. Photographs by Richard I' Anson.

By Tony Wheeler
October 22, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
main article image

Born in Japan as the "man-powered vehicle" or jinrikisha, the rickshaw later metamorphosed into the cycle-rickshaw and in parts of Asia is still the true developing-world taxicab. Despite government opposition and competition for road space from faster motorized traffic, the cycle-rickshaw is still an enormously popular form of transport. Cycle-rickshaws are non-polluting, create employment at a relatively low cost and ideally fit the scale and traffic patterns of many Asian cities.

Also known as trishaws, sidecars, pedicabs, cyclos, becaks and a host of other local names, the cycle-rickshaw is much more than just a means of transportation. The 12 Asian cities visited in this book cover the whole spectrum of the rickshaw and cycle-rickshaw story. In Beijing they disappeared during the Cultural Revolution, only to reappear in the 1980s. In Penang the riders are old and fading, while in Manila they're often teenagers dreaming of moving on to jeepney driving. In Dhaka the cycle-rickshaws are both everyday transport and moving art galleries. In Singapore they're disappearing as day-to-day transport but simultaneously being reborn as tourist attractions. In Hong Kong they're both city icon and endangered species.


Not only does the rickshaw's position in the transport mix vary from city to city, the riders and other rickshaw people are an equally mixed bunch. But they all have stories to tell. In our Asian travels we met with riders, owners, administrators, repairers, manufacturers and, of course, passengers. In Beijing we were lectured on how good rickshaw riding was for the health, in Calcutta we visited rickshaw pullers' dormitories and in Dhaka we talked to the artists who paint and decorate the region's most dramatically colorful rickshaws. In Hanoi we tracked down a scrap yard where confiscated rickshaws awaited their fate and in Penang we met with the city official who put riders through their riding test. Our favorite passengers were, without doubt, the schoolchildren who, in city after city, pile into rickshaws to ride to and from school each day. In two cities, Beijing and Manila, we encountered women riders (that is, pedalers). Encouragingly, neither of them had experienced any difficulty breaking into an overwhelmingly male occupation.

The rickshaw designs are as widely variable as their riders. Hong Kong still has a handful of the old hand-pulled rickshaws and Calcutta is the only city on earth where they are still used as everyday transport. In the other cities, the rickshaw, a creation of the 1880s, gave birth to the cycle-rickshaw during the 1930s and 1940s, but no standard pattern developed for this new-fangled device. In Manila, Rangoon and Singapore, the cycle-rickshaws are standard bicycles with attached sidecars. The Manila versions with their mini-bikes and youthful riders look like a toytown model, while in Rangoon the passengers ride back-to-back. In Agra, Beijing, Dhaka and Macau, the rider is out front and the passengers sit behind, as if the front part of a bicycle was mated with an old hand-pulled rickshaw. In Hanoi, Penang and Yogyakarta, the meeting of bike and rickshaw produced precisely the opposite result, as if the back part of a bicycle had been joined to the old rickshaw seating; as a result, the passengers sit, sometimes frighteningly, out front, watching oncoming traffic hurtling towards them.


At some time during our visits to each cycle-rickshaw city, I jumped on board and went for a test ride. Surprisingly, it was not as hard work as it looks, for despite their hefty weight, cycle-rickshaws are generally pretty low geared; as long as the streets are flat, it doesn't take a great effort to roll them along. In Rob Gallagher's exhaustive study of the rickshaw business, "The Rickshaws of Bangladesh," he concludes that although rickshaw riding is hard work, it's not any more arduous than other manual activities, like farming. What I found much more difficult than merely going forward was steering and stopping.

Cycle-rickshaws do not have a bicycle's natural stability. Taking a corner on a bicycle is a simple matter of leaning slightly into the curve; when you straighten up, the bicycle does as well. That certainly isn't the case with a cycle-rickshaw, which has to be wrestled into the corner and hauled back out of it. My first rickshaw experience, on a Yogyakarta becak, included a brush with a wall because I did not use enough brute force to straighten the beast out as we exited a corner. Riding a rickshaw in Agra, I had quite the opposite experience. The subcontinent's rickshaws use a normal bicycle front fork and wheel, and as a result the front half of the rickshaw wants to act like a bicycle and veer off to one side when a sideways force is applied. I was cruising along a quiet road in the Agra cantonment district when a minor bump in the road suddenly sent my rickshaw diving off the road, skittering across the grass and plunging into the bushes!

Even without steering problems, the lack of rigidity which many cycle-rickshaws suffer from makes riding a less than straightforward activity. Most cycle-rickshaws are a mix of bicycle and rickshaw parts, joined together with a distinct deficiency of engineering precision. The front and back halves often feel as if they are squirming around and intent on disappearing in totally different directions. The Agra and Rangoon versions were particularly lacking in rigidity and disconcerting to ride.


Having got your rickshaw moving and round the odd corner, the final problem is bringing it to a halt. Cycle-rickshaws have lousy brakes. In most cases the problem of designing brakes for both ends seems to have been too much for the rickshaw's designer, who's opted to make do with braking at one end only. As a result, a weighty rickshaw with three people aboard has less braking power than a bicycle. The passengers-to-the-rear cycle-rickshaws of Agra and Dhaka have a regular bicycle front brake, although it is operated by both front brake levers in tandem so at least you can squeeze it twice as hard. The passengers-to-the-front cycle-rickshaws of Hanoi, Penang and Yogyakarta have different forms of brakes on the rear wheel only. The Penang and Hanoi versions are operated by a foot pedal which allows the rider to stand his weight on the brakes but requires an awkward motion when taking his feet off the pedals. All three are remarkably crude in their operation, and the Hanoi rickshaw not only provides minimal braking but makes horrible noises into the bargain. None of them stops very well.


Rickshaws have appeared in books and films -- the becaks of Jakarta featured centrally in "The Year of Living Dangerously," while Calcutta's hard-working rickshaw-wallahs were the stars of "The City of Joy" -- and the machines, their riders and their customers have been studied by engineers, evaluated by transport economists and analyzed by sociologists.

We set out to create this book for a variety of reasons -- partly to record a fascinating means of transport and human activity before it disappeared, partly because rickshaws are wonderfully varied examples of technical ingenuity, partly because they're often beautiful examples of folk art and partly because it looked like a fun thing to do. In fact the last part of that equation proved to be the biggest surprise of all. Putting this book together has been enormous fun -- in very large part because of the people we've met: the rickshaw pullers and riders, the rickshaw owners and operators, the rickshaw makers and repairers. They've all had a tale to tell and they've all been remarkably enthusiastic about telling those tales.

They're celebrated in this book.


Excerpted with permission from "Chasing Rickshaws," published by Lonely
Planet Publications; text and photos © 1998 by Lonely Planet,
photos © 1998 by Richard I' Anson.

Tony Wheeler

Tony Wheeler is the co-founder (with his wife, Maureen) and head of Lonely Planet Publications.

MORE FROM Tony Wheeler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Asia China India Philippines Travel