I replied, “Sure. We had Haw Par Villa, Jade House, Crocodile Farm, Changi Prison, Siong Lim Temple, Sentosa, Mount Faber, Bird Park” but she stopped me short and said those were tourist attractions. This was indeed very embarrassing.
She was right; those were attractions but it took me a couple of days of hard thinking before I slowly realized our tourism icons were the “Singapore Girl” and the “Trishaw”, both featured prominently in overseas publicity drives and advertisements. The “Singapore Girl” is easy to understand because Singapore Airlines was promoting itself after its separation from Malaysian Airlines Sistems in 1971 but the trishaw was a different proposition altogether until I gleaned through old copies of tourism literatures and Singapore Airlines posters.
Photo 1: Overseas Singapore Tourist Promotion Board publicity drive. Top row right; Trishaw. Second Row; Singapore Girl splendidly dressed in the sarong kebaya (c 1973). Do you remember the TV advertisement of Singapore Girl holding a waxed payong and seated on a trishaw?
Let’s face it Singapore was not on the same level with Hong Kong or Bangkok but there was something those cities didn’t have – the trishaw. Can you see the synergy between a great way to fly Singapore Airlines (to Singapore) and taking a trishaw ride to recapture the sights of Singapore?
Photo 2: Trishaw outside the departure gate of Changi Airport Terminal 1 (c 1988)
My personal experience on a trishaw was in 1968 when our school raised $37,000 from a fun fair for the National Defense Fund in support of National Service. For $1.50 we transported plywood and cans of ICI paint on a trishaw from a timber shop at the corner of Rochore Canal Road and Bencoolen Street. Benny and Dilip were the lucky passengers because they were the class “midgets”. Long before 1968, I saw trishaw riders playing Si Sek at the Eng Hoon Street garages.
Photo 3: Left; Trishaw made it into Singapore’s tourist promotional literatures. Right; Photographic-type postcard from Singapore (c 1970s).
The trishaws first appeared in Singapore in April 1914 but it was a modest introduction. The sum luen chair became popular in 1947 after rickshaws were phased out from Singapore. Interestingly, the tourism boom from the mid-70s gave trishaw rides a “shot in the arm”. But the new trishaw riders were part-timers, not your Henghua and Hokchia Ah Chek. But the fate of the trishaw was sealed after much improvement to our public transport system of buses and taxis. From 9,000 trishaws and 10,000 riders in 1947, the figures declined to just 350 and 380 respectively in 1988. Now days, you can count with your fingers as to how many trishaws are still on our roads.
Last time a tourist going on a ride from Cuscaden Road to the Cathay Building paid $10 when it should have been just over a dollar according to approved rates. Matters got worse as tourists reported that they were fleeced up to S$200 when they were taken to “dark spots”.
Photo 4: Trishaws and rickshaws along Victoria Street (c 1946).
Things are so much better these days when there are strict regulations governing the trishaw industry. Trishaws meant for tourists are now painted a different color, riders wear identification tags and prices are publicly known. Many trishaws are better equipped with stereo music and riders speak decent English. My good friend Ted thinks a trishaw can make an impressive photo-session prop.
Photo 5: Left; Trishaw ride at night. Right; Trishaw babe Natasha on wheels (c 2009). Photo courtesy of Ted Olikkala