The word “rickshaw” is an abbreviation of the Japanese word “Jinrikisha” or “Rikisha”. In the 1880s, the rickshaw began to displace gharries (horse-drawn carriages) as the main mode of cheap transport in Singapore. A comprehensive study of the “rickshaw” in 1921 Singapore necessarily examines rickshaws as a mode of transport, as well as an avenue to gain insights into the lives of rickshaw pullers. In the latter sense, rickshaws serve to bring the lives of the common people into sharper contrast, creating a social history of sorts. This essay will first analyse rickshaws as a transport form in 1921 Singapore, before proceeding to the individual pullers.
Rickshaws had 2 wheels and were pulled by one person. There were previously 2 classes of rickshaws: 1st Class (rubber tyres) and 2nd Class (iron tyres). However, by 1920 there were no 2nd Class rickshaws in Singapore. Rickshaws had collapsible canvas hoods for shelter purposes. In addition, it had a canvas screen that was theoretically waterproof, for protection against the weather. The screen stretched from the passenger’s feet to his chest, and was fastened at the sides with snap-on buttons. But it did not keep out driving rain, so the passenger had to wear a raincoat. The rickshaw puller might have worn a short canvas cloak over his shoulders in the rain, but most of the time he ran bare to the waist. New rickshaws were being imported from Japan in 1921, which cost $180, doubling the original price of $90. Because of this increase, some rickshaws were made locally but were inferior to the imported ones. Rickshaws in the Municipality increased from 8022 (1920) to 9244 (1921) and the behavior of the pullers owing to increased competition greatly improved. This rise was due to the falling employment in estates. In 1921, rickshaws began to face competition from omnibuses, which foreshadowed their eventual displacement by motorized transport. Small 7 seater omnibuses, which were converted from Ford Car Chassis, charged cheaper rates than the rickshaws. Furthermore these omnibuses were pneumatic-tyred and light, thus they did little harm to roads. They plied regular routes and fulfilled a long-felt want of cheap and easy transport for poor people.
An owner-puller configuration characterized the rickshaw system in 1921. An owner was the person whose name stood in the register as the possessor of a licensed rickshaw. Owners of rickshaws usually came from the same area in China and dialect group as their pullers. They were primarily Hengwah, Hockchia, and Hokkien. There were approximately a thousand owners of rickshaws in Singapore prior to 1928; most were men of small capital. A few owners, who had limited assets, pulled their rickshaws themselves. There were a few exceptions where puller advanced to owner. For example, Lee Choon, who was frugal and never smoked opium, made enough in one year of pulling to buy a rickshaw. Only approximately two pullers in a hundred owned their rickshaws. The rest of the pullers rented rickshaws from owners on a shift basis. The typical shift was for half a day. The day shift lasted from 6 am to 2pm whilst the night shift lasted from 2pm to midnight / 5pm to 3 am. In 1916, first class rickshaw rental rates were 50-60 cents a day. During good times, the rickshaw puller took home at most 60% of his daily earnings whereas he did not make any money in slumps. In this way, the rental system made owners rich and pullers, poor and exploited.
Rickshaws were under the jurisdiction of the Jinrikisha Department (Part of the Vehicles Registration Office). The department collated many statistics pertaining to rickshaws. 1857 new rickshaws were registered during 1921. 27,663 first class rickshaw licenses and 6 second class licenses were issued during 1921. Each license cost $4. Note that far more licenses were issued than there were rickshaws (9244). This could be because a single rickshaw could be pulled by many different...
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