Thursday, July 29, 2010

Call me "Sa Leng Chia" (or Bechak) – Peter Chan

I was working on a tourism project assignment for one of our ASEAN neighbours when she threw me this question. “Can you tell me what were Singapore’s tourism icons and creative themes in the 1970s and the 1980s?” Well that’s easy for tourism icons but not the second question - when I can’t do a good job recalling, I bet you won’t either. How about creative themes like, “Instant Asia”, “SINGAPORE – A WORLD WITHIN A WORLD”, “It all started here in Singapore” or “Surprising Singapore”.

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


Lam Chun See said...

In Spore I don't remember ever having sat in a trishaw - maybe once as a kid. But overseas yes. I always recall a time when I was in Sec school. I was in Melaka with my dad and we boarded a trishaw. We came to a bridge where the slope was quite steep. The poor chap had a tough time bringing us over.

In Penang they called it lang chia (human vehicle). A few years ago, whilst on assignment in a small town in Indonesia called Cilacap, I traveled in one. They called it "pay check". I never knew until today that this name is also used here in Spore.

Victor said...

In the 1960s, a short trip of 5 mins or so cost about 30-50 cents. I remember taking a trishaw with my mum from my house near Queen Street to my school in Short Street, only a 5 mins' ride away.

Icemoon said...

What's the rate today? Really more expensive than taxi?

A joy ride would be one using South Bridge Road (Chinatown mah) and finally ending at Mount Faber, haha

yg said...

when i was in primary 1, i went to school, together with two other children, in a trishaw. my house was at kampong chia heng and my primary school was owen school. the distance was around 2km. i think my mom paid $5 (my dad's one day's wage) a month.

Zen said...

After the war(1945), my parents came back to Singapore from Johor/Segamat. When I was a few years old my mother took me on a ride in a rickshaw (predecessor to the trishaw). My mother quarelled with the puller after the ride probably over the unfair fee charged. Now if we go the junction of tg pagar and maxwell road (opposite the fairfield church,the formerly kum wah theatre) showing a sign that it was a former rickshaw centre during japanese occupation. I had a few rides with my grandma when the new trishaw was introduced.

FL said...

I had my first experience of taking a trishaw way back in the 1950s when I was just a young kid. I remember my mum took me to the SGH for a minor surgical operation to my left foot, in a trishaw from our former home at Bernam Street (off Tg Pagar Rd). I was told that in those years certain roads were not covered by public bus routes. In those years too, I used to accompany my dad from my same old home to Pagoda St in Chinatown. He was a street hawker. Only when there were lot of goods to carry, dad would hail for a trishaw. I remember he paid the fare, something like 25 to 30 cents then ! From: Francis Lai

Thimbuktu said...

The condition of the trishaw-riders today has changed since the early days of jinrickshaw in Singapore as a form of public transportation drawn by human pulley for the thousands of Chinese immigrants to Singapore between the 1880s to the 1930s.

However, San Francisco with its unique terrain was dominated by railways. Horse-drawn railcars appeared in San Francisco around 1862.

Living horses and human had killed many lives. The invention by machines replaced by horses and trishaw by man have prevented their lives.

Today, both trishaw in Singapore and cable car lines in San Franciso have retained them as tourist attractions and no longer inhuman in the past.

Dogcom said...

I had my share of trishaw rides in my younger days with my mum and grandmother but I can't remember much details. My wife went to school in them : )

irwan said...

i remember when i was abt 4 yrs always ride trishaw with mom from mountbatten pasar to my home at jalan satu cost abt 50 cents only :)