Riding out the rickshaw days

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 1998, 12:00am

Worried by the recent bus crashes? At least today's buses have brakes, unlike earlier forms of road transport. As a four-year-old said as he and I passed by Hong Kong's rickshaw pullers, they are 'the Star Ferry skelingtons' and you can see what he means.

The remaining members of this trade are stick-thin and have a distinctly pickled, cadaverous look. In fact, they look like they were the first members of the profession, which started 120 years ago.

But the next time you watch these men, charmingly occupied fleecing tourists, reflect for a moment on their long and distinguished history. The rickshaw pullers are arguably the most successful form of road transport Hong Kong has ever had.

This is a genuine accolade. Hong Kong has 'perhaps the most modern and efficient public transportation system in any of the great cities of the world', Peter Hall, an authority on civic planning, said in a 1984 book, The World Cities.

The rickshaw drivers are, I feel, a kind of missing link between Hong Kong as a romantic Victorian seaport, and today's Hong Kong, more of a giant concrete shopping mall. And with their surliness, their money-mindedness and the inevitable cigarette seemingly glued to their lower lip, the rickshaw-wallahs are the early hominid precursors of the modern, grouchy, Hong Kong minibus driver.

If you wanted to go from A to B in the 1840s, you walked; you mounted a horse (large numbers of which were imported by the British soon after they landed); you rode on the horse-drawn carriage (there was only one), or you were carried by coolies.

Sedan chairs - a seat carried on two poles - had been used in China for centuries, and were the first public transport in Hong Kong. Their numbers peaked in 1920, when a veritable traffic jam of 1,215 sedan chairs filled the roads. People were still registering them as recently as 1962, and the last one in use was found abandoned on a street in 1965.

But let us return to 1870, when an American businessman introduced the jinrikisha (Japanese for man-powered wheeled vehicle). The rickshaw was a huge success. It overtook the sedan chair in numbers, just as it overtook them on the highways. Seven thousand rickshaws trundled around Hong Kong in the early years of this century. The Hong Kong Government eventually killed them off by refusing to allow any licences to be transferred or new ones to be issued - which explains the hoary antiquity of the rickshaw pullers at the Star Ferry these days.

But the wonder of Hong Kong's early roads was the amazingly futuristic science-fiction vehicle, the 'electric tramway'. This was a single-deck, open-sided carriage which could move by itself without horses or coolies. It opened for business in 1904 with 22 kilometres of track, from the western side of 'the city of Victoria' (Central) to Shau Kei Wan, a tiny village in the countryside. There were 16 tramcars for Chinese and 10 for Europeans.

The first motor car was imported soon after the turn of the century by a Pokfulam dentist, Dr Noble. By 1907, there were six cars in the territory. The speed limits in Victoria city ranged from seven to 10 miles per hour (11 to 16km/h) while in the suburbs, cars blurred past at a death-defying 15 miles per hour. As motor vehicles proliferated in the following decades, so did 'auto buses', big metal monsters which vied with trams, sedan chairs and rickshaws for business.

Let us move on to 1933. You had just finished work in Victoria and wanted to visit your friend who had a small house up the hill on Caine's Road (which eventually lost its 's'). Rickshaw fares started at 10 cents for a 10-minute trip, but a half-hour ride at 25 may have been needed.

As rickshaws could not climb steep terrain, perhaps you would have opted for a sedan chair; slower, but more versatile. A half-hour ride with two bearers would have cost 50 cents. The four-coolie model was a straight $1 an hour. Or there were the auto buses, whizzing in all directions at prices from five cents.

Road vehicles followed the Darwinian rules of natural selection. The sedan chairs became extinct, and the cars and buses multiplied. In 1970, Hong Kong had about 100,000 vehicles. This doubled to 200,000 by 1981, and climbed to 300,000 by 1986 and 400,000 by 1990.

Today, public transport dominates the roads. There are about 18,000 buses in three flavours: 11,000 large buses, 4,350 green-topped minibuses and 2,480 red-topped. If you want personal service, there are 18,000 taxis. Of the 325,000 private cars, 90 per cent are tucked away except for occasional evening and weekend use.

These days, the 160 Hong Kong trams are still considered something to marvel at - not because they are futuristic but because they are antediluvian. The Hong Kong Tramway Company is the only firm in the world still maintaining wooden double-decker streetcars.

But if you look at the government listings of licensed and registered vehicles today, you will see about 532,000 items of road transport there. And right at the bottom of the list, you will find a single digit, '8', next to the word 'rickshaws'.

These guys are still around. Go on, give them some money and take a picture. It may be your last chance.

The last rickshaw-wallah remaining, mark my words, will become a Hong Kong superstar.