- A Slow Ride into the Past: The Chinese Trishaw Industry in Singapore, 1942–1983 by Jason Lim
Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013, 186 pp., AUD/US $29.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-921867-38-5
‘Once upon a time’, The Straits Times reported, trishaws were ‘perhaps the most important mode of public transport in Singapore’ (p. 120). Nowadays, ‘trishaw riding’, as Lim (p. 122) puts it, ‘had become part of people memories and nostalgia …, remembered with fondness—the days when life in Singapore was slower and travelling in a trishaw was common’. Using government records, old newspapers, photographs, travelogues as well as unpublished association records and oral recordings, historian, and first-time author, Jason Lim presents the lives and challenges of the trishaw riders in this ethno-historically rich monograph. Indeed, this is a much-needed and much-anticipated narrative on the trishaw industry, well-placed within the social history of Singapore. In fact, it is also a fine example of how a native (Chinese) of Singapore combined curiosity with talent to gather reliable materials on an under-represented yet indispensable occupational group.
The book begins at the Japanese Occupation in 1942, when trishaws first appeared in Singapore, and concludes with the dissolution of the trishaw riders’ association in 1983. This historical account is situated within the history of the Chinese community of Singapore. While the earlier works of the sort often portray the lives of prominent leaders, this book reverses the focus and, in so doing, it explores the lives of the lower echelons instead of the political and economic elites. The reader comes to appreciate the living conditions when transport in Singapore was less efficient and learn about riders who ‘know what people thought of them but … chose to grin and bear it in silence…’ (p. 94), ‘so long as he did nothing wrong, it was better for him to work in a harsh prejudiced environment and yet remain a decent hardworking person’.
The book contains five main chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. While the trishaw was once ubiquitous in Singapore, it was by no means unique. Chapter 1 traces the general development of the trishaw industry across Southeast Asia by examining cross-cultural similarities and patterns. Chapter 2 specifically focuses on Singapore and how the ban on rickshaws impacted on the proliferation of the trishaw industry. Not only were the trishaws cheaper and quicker than their rickshaw predecessors; they were also welcomed by the Japanese administrators at the time. Chapter 3 introduces the two minority groups of Fujianese origin who became synonymous with the trishaw trade—the Henghua and Hokchia, both late-comers to Singapore’s migration scene. Then in Chapter 4, Lim explores the working lives, conditions and sacrifices of the riders, including their admirable involvement in three major charity rides. Despite the contributions, dangers and [End Page 97] risks he took ‘every time he plied the streets’ (p. 91), public perceptions towards trishaw riders have been increasingly negative: they were blamed for traffic disorder, and also considered immoral for involvement in pimping and overcharging passengers. Finally, Chapter 5 documents how in the hands of overseas-trained consultants, policy-makers and planners, many old roads disappeared as ‘modernist’ development inhibited the riders’ ability to continue plying their trade. A striking consequence in light of modernization and economic development was that an entire way of life indigenous to post-war Singapore also vanished. Even the short-lived tourism boom—delivering the so-called ‘Asian experience’—could hardly save the dying trishaw industry. In the urbanization of Singapore, the trishaw could simply no longer compete—either in terms of distance or speed—with more efficient motorized transport; nor did the industry attract the ‘new blood’ (labour) necessary to keep the three-wheelers on the road. The trishaw industry was left to die a natural death.
Initially submitted as an Honours thesis in 1995, almost twenty long years elapsed before the full account was published in a more accessible form. In the interim, ‘The Trishaw Industry as a “Bang”-based Trade’ (Chapter 3 of this book) made its...