Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Dirty Hong Kong Rickshaw

I would like to present to you a letter from the archives of the South China Morning Post, dated September 14th, 1904 (101 years ago for those that prefer math-free posts):

Dirty rickshas
Sir, cannot something be done in the way of compelling ricksha proprietors, or coolies, to keep their rickshas clean? At present, things are anything but what they might be in the Colony. One at this time of the year invariably wears white clothes, and it is simply disgusting to think that after a few minutes' drive in the present ricksha the back of one's white coat is as if it had not been near the wash-tub for weeks, as was my experience this a.m. Ladies also must suffer greatly in the same way, with their white silk and light-coloured blouses. Is it not possible for the powers that be, who have the licensing of these vehicles, to compel the proprietors thereof to provide washable white or even khaki covers for both seat and back, as is done in French towns in the East? For instance in Saigon, Haiphong and Hanoi. One could then engage a ricksha and see for one's-self beforehand whether it was clean or not, and also be sure that he was not an object of derision, after having alighted. I enclose my card.
Hongkong, September 14, 1904.
Well, I'm not really sure where to begin. First of all, starting a letter to the editor with "Sir" today would be as bad an idea as I had when I applied for my first investment banking job with the anachronistic "Gentlemen"; particularly since Fanny Fung is the Editor and Luisa Tam the editor of the Opinion pages. Naturally, both being Chinese, they might well have taken umbrage at the sartorial outrage expressed by the card-enclosing letter writer when put into the broader perspective of the suffering experienced by these ricksha (which by the way originated in Japan as jinrickshas) pullers. But there was little sentimentality expressed by riders of these conveyances to their human motors. I recall a journalist of the Hong Kong Telegraph writing upon the opening of the Peak Tram that it was a "far more agreeable experience than being constantly jostled by coolies." That trip of course had previously been done on a different mode of transport - the sedan chair by 2 or 4 coolies without the benefit of wheels, owing to the steep ascent.

There were also many reports over the years about passengers actually assaulting their ricksha coolies, and for many of them being fined for minor offences by the police, which resulted in them losing an entire day's wages if not more. They unionized and from time to time would try to strike, but usually with very little success. Of course then as now, ricksha pullers like today's taxi drivers would sometimes try to cheat unsuspecting customers. But one need not look very far to find the source of antipathy for their clientele, particularly of the gwailo variety.

How did the coolies cope with their backbreaking work, often in the blazing summer heat, for a mere pittance? Many of them resorted to opium. I shall close with these very evocative passage written by the late Martin Booth in his final work, Gwailo (a reminiscence of his childhood in Hong Kong in the 1950s):
"Riding in a rickshaw was a strange sensation. The coolie lowered the shafts to the ground, one stepped between them onto a footboard in front of a padded seat covered in a loose white cloth and sat down. [evidently the SCMP letter-writer got his way. - Ed.] At this stage, the whole contraption was sloping forwards and downwards. I had to hold on to the sides to stop sliding off - the cloth didn't help. The coolie then picked up the shafts, his elbows bent at right angles. This meant the rickshaw suddenly tipped backwards and the passenger fell to the rear of the seat.

The coolie set off at a walk, building to a steady trot. His bent arms acted like leaf-springs on a vehicle, reducing the shock of the road bumps for his body.

The coolies were usually bare to the waist, except in winter, and one could see their muscles flexing across their shoulders, the tendons tightening and relaxing under their skin. Most of them were sallow, with sunken chests, gaunt faces and drawn skin on their necks: and when they sweated, they exuded a faint, strangely sweet body odour. They all looked old enough to be Confucian sages, but they were almost all certainly no older than their late twenties. A rickshaw coolie's lifespan seldom reached thirty-five. It was not long before I realized virtually every one of them was an opium addict."
Which makes the passing of this mode of transport a very good thing. I find it hard to believe anyone still wants a photo on one at the Central Star Ferry. Explains why I saw a lonely red rickshaw offered up for sale...

1 comment:

Dave and Stefan said...

Well, I do remember seeing pictures of how in the old days the coolies would rest in their own chairs between assignments. the opium-laced sweat of backbreaking labour, i suppose...

funny you commenting on my site just as i was commenting on yours! also that we both chose the same topic to blog about today! great minds think alike.