GEORGE TOWN, June 19 — Rickshaws were introduced some time in the 1860s in Japan and were brought to the then-Malaya and Singapore in the 1880s.
Rickshaws were passenger carriage seats that were manually pulled by the runner and in 1936, the rickshaw was given a facelift; the carriage seats were mounted on a tricycle so riders could cycle the vehicle instead of pulling it. That was the first trishaw that made its appearance in Penang.
Over the next 30 years, the number of trishaws or beca increased to the thousands as people relied on them as a mode of transportation before there were public buses and private vehicles.
With the arrival of public buses, motorcycles and cars over time, trishaws went into a decline and today, they are more of a tourist attraction rather than a mode of transport for locals.
There are barely 150 trishaws left in the whole of Penang as riders quit to seek easier jobs as security guards.
Koay Beng Hong, who used to be a contractor, was asked to take over a fleet of trishaws more than 25 years ago. Known as Ah Beng, he is seriously considering closing down his trishaw operations in Penang and moving the riders and trishaws to Perak to seek greener pastures.
Currently, Koay’s fleet of trishaws has been reduced to about 40 with riders quitting every other month. Here, he shares in Penang Hokkien, the uphill battle the trishaw men are facing on a daily basis just to make ends meet.
In his own words (translated here):
I’ve been doing this at least 25 years. I don’t even know how I got involved in this, I can’t remember. I used to be a contractor and one of the Chinese clan associations asked me to take over a fleet of trishaws and manage it. I was lucky at that time, Datuk Kee Phaik Cheen helped me and gave me a letter so I could approach hotels to book rides for my riders. Before that, it was really hard for the riders to get business, that’s why I took over to help them, to get jobs for them. They will rent the trishaws from me and I will maintain the vehicles for them.
Now there are about 90 riders left in George Town with about 30 in Batu Ferringhi. The ones in Batu Ferringhi are part-timers, they don’t come to town. I have about 50 in my fleet now but less than 50 riders. It is hard to get riders now, only the older ones are riders and many have decided to quit. The income from trishaw riding nowadays has dropped so much compared to those days and I don’t mean by a little bit, I mean a lot.
Thni Kong has helped the state to give it heritage status but the state government didn’t seem to know what to do with it. What’s the point if they don’t know how to promote tourism. All those numbers they spout… those are not true. They are using numbers from cruise ships which are not accurate. Do you see a lot of tourists all over? I don’t see that many tourists.
Our tourism industry is suffering and the state government doesn’t want to admit it. You look for yourself… you’ve been standing here with me for so long, do you see tourists? Do you see tourists taking rides with trishaws? The tourism exco doesn’t know anything about tourism at all. You can quote me on this.
My trishaw riders are usually based along Penang Road, they work 24 hours so not many people are interested to be riders nowadays. Sometimes, they can sit here the whole day and not get a single customer. The state government likes to boast that they give each trishaw rider RM100 per month. That comes up to about RM3 per day. What can they do with that to survive? What do they eat?
Then what happens if the trishaw needs to be repaired? Who will cover the costs? Now, a tyre costs RM27 each and if the whole rim needs to be changed, it costs RM150. Which trishaw rider can afford to spend that kind of money to repair it? So, some trishaw riders would rather sell their trishaws to me and as the owner, I have to bear the costs of these repairs while they pay daily rental to me. They only pay RM2 rental daily to me but I have to cover all costs of maintenance and repairs of the trishaws. Riders are getting fewer by the day, I have stopped repairing a lot of the trishaws.
You know, when tourists come, they were not in the least impressed with what they saw. Some of my riders took them to Chew Jetty and they were not interested. They told us the clan jetties no longer looked like heritage clan jetties but like rows of souvenir shops now. This is the problem. There was no control at all. Even the Fort Cornwallis, tourists have complained. There’s nothing much inside and yet they charged a high fee of RM20. The state government is so lucky to have the heritage status and yet, they failed badly in managing it and gaining from it.
We have a trishaw association but it’s as good as non-existent. There are now only 80 over riders left and these riders are divided in two groups, how do you even call for an AGM? The state government has never supported the association.
These few months, I’ve been visiting Ipoh and Taiping a lot. If you look at Penang, there are now too many cars on the road. If you sit in the trishaw, you will also be frightened by the high number of traffic. Maybe by 2017, I will move the trishaws to Taiping and Ipoh. See if the riders want to follow me down to Taiping, if not, I will get new riders there. Maybe I might even retire, stop managing trishaws and sell it all off.
We don’t earn much here anymore unlike previously. Previously, there used to be state events and they will book a lot of trishaws for those events. It is events that gave us the income, not the individual tourists. If the state government doesn’t have any budget, they could help us by arranging for sponsorships by hotels. When we suggested this, they asked us to do it ourselves. The hotels won’t even entertain us because we are just trishaw riders.