Monday, May 2, 2011

Penang Trishaws

Penang Trishaws(檳城三轮车)

PENANG, July 7 (Bernama) -- George Town's second anniversary celebration to mark its declaration as Unesco World Heritage Site, on Wednesday kicked off with a procession of 50 decorated trishaws in the city. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng joined in the procession which began at the Penang Municipal Council heritage building at 9am, and ended at the Yap Kongsi building in Armenian Street about 1pm.


The cycle rickshaw is a small-scale local means of transport; it is also known by a variety of other names such as pedicab, bikecab, cyclo, becak,bicycle rickshaws or trishaw or, simply, rickshaw which also refers to auto rickshaws, and the, now uncommon, rickshaws pulled by a person on foot. Cycle rickshaws are human-powered, a type of tricycle designed to carry passengers in addition to the driver. It is a human-powered vehicle for hire, usually with one or two seats for carrying passengers in addition to the driver. it is normally a three-wheeled vehicle propelled by human power.

Trishaws are widely used for transportation in many parts of Asia, especially in Penang.

Trishaws are designed differently at different places of the world. In South Asia, the passenger seat is mounted behind the driver's, while in Indonesia the driver sits behind the passenger seat. In the Philippines, the seats are usually mounted side-by-side. Cycle rickshaws are also used in some European cities, such as Soho and Covent Garden in London, New York, Munich, which are normally motor powered, where they are most often found near tourist attractions.

Penang Trishaws service is one of the best ways of seeing Penang, moving around the heritage city of Georgetown. Nowaday, it is part of must do list for tourist in Penang.

In 1997 a new pedicab design was created in Berlin, Germany. It is a modern and newly designed pedicab (CityCruiser) with a 500-watt electric assist motor. Although these electric-assist pedicabs were engineered in Germany they are manufactured in the Czech Republic and some clones are now also produced in China. The Chinese clone can be purchased for about three thousand US dollars; the German original is around six thousand US dollars. The Chinese vehicles have over 200 parts and require daily maintenance in order to stay in use but the original will with regular checks require a once a month tune up, in line with most quality western pedicabs. The batteries last about 4 hours with a full charge. As with a few recumbent and semi-recumbent designs, some drivers may suffer with knee and joint pain due to the weight of the vehicle (145 kg).

In many major cities, bicycle rickshaws or pedicabs are popular alternatives to taxi cabs and mass public transportation. I see it in New York(Central Park), San Diego(Harbor area), Munich etc

Trishaws/Beca in Penang(檳城人力三轮车)

In Malaysia ,there are two types of trishaw, the one in Penang is the type with the cycle at the back of passenger carriage. The passenger seat carriage is in front, and the cyclist or trashawman’ seat with the cycle at the back. The cycle will push the carriage forward. In other part of Malaya and some countries in Asia, the cycle is at the side of the passenger carriage, the passenger seat carriage will move together with the cycle, as the trishaw man cycled along.

In Penang, the cycle rickshaw is called Trishaws(三轮车). The local Hockkien Chinese call it lang-chhia(人车), may be a short form of human power tricycle vehicle(人力三轮车), taking the first word “human or lang”( 人) and the last word “ vehicle or chiaa”( 车) , forming the two words, lang-chiaa(人车). The local Malay also called in “Beca”, a Malay word actually derived from Hockkien dialet which means “be-chia” or horse cart. Be (马)is Chinese word for horse, and chia(车)is Chinese word for cart, vehicle or car.The trishaw man is called lang-chiaa-pek() and cycling the trishaw is ta-lang-chiaa.

Penang trishaw are human powered or pedal powered, but the local council is gradually introducing motor powered trishaws. There are about 200 trishaws in Penang, which are scattered around Georgetown area, especially tourist areas. . It ferries tourists through narrow lanes, offering them a closer view of the neighbourhood in an unhurried manner. The nostalgic feeling sitting on top of the three wheeled beca does indeed an unforgettable experience. Besides the novelty of traveling in this open-fronted three wheeled vehicle, trishaw allows visitor the opportunity of visit the sights at a more leisurely pace and stopping at any point to snap picture or to buy souvenir.

The earlier version of rickshaw, which was pulled by runners; you can now found it in Penang museum. But you happen to visit Nara, Japan, you will able to see a rickshaw, similar to the one used in early Penang.

The History of Trishaw in Penang (1880-Now)

The earlier version of trishaw was rickshaw pulled by a runner, the passenger carriage seat was mounted at the back, the runner will use his leg power to pull the carriage. The rickshaw was invented in Japan in 1869. The rickshaw was introduced to Singapore in 1880, last from 1880 to 1940.

The safety bicycle, the bicycle we know it today,with two wheels of equal size, arrived at Malaya in 1890s. It was called "Kereta Angin", which literally means air vehicle; but the Chineses called it kha-chiaa(脚车), which literally means vehicle or car of the legs.

The first car was introduced in 1903, in 1906 the Municipal Commission it took over the tram service and started the electric tram service in Georgetown. A tram or tramcar in English, referred to as streetcar or trolley car in North American,is a rail vehicle which—at least in parts of its route—runs on tracks in streets.

On 9th September 1912, The Malay Daily Chronicle contained an article headed "The coming of pedal rikisha". But trishaw was not introduced, rickshaw is still popular, may be the price was too high for the poor rickshaw puller; may be they need to learn new skill of cycling..... whatever the reason, the pedal power is here to stay.

In 1920, trolley buses were introduced in Georgetown, it is an electric bus that draws its electricity from overhead wires (generally suspended from roadside posts) using spring-loaded trolley poles. Two wires and poles are required to complete the electrical circuit. This development of public transport posed a stiff competition to the rickshaw pullers.

1922, it was reported "Its streets are well-paved and electric lighted. It has tram- cars, buses, rickshaws and motor cars"(source: The Christian advocate: Volume 97, 1922)

In 1927, a Penang newspaper plead for the abolition of rickshaw traffic,arguing that riding rickshaws conflict with the European notion of human dignity(Source: South China Morning Post,30th April 1927). At the end of 1930s, the man-drawn rickshaw was still the popular means of transport for short distance, particularly in the city. The cycling which, by the 1930s, on cheap Japanese bicycles, was already immensely popular with Malayan youth.

1936- The new rickshaw that resembles an old fashioned buggy mounted on a tricycle, was introduced to Penang, Strait Settlement in 1936. It was introduced by the Municipal Commissioner, an initial fleet of 50 rickshaws. (source: Popular Mechanics Oct 1936, Pg 539). The cycle rickshaw is something new, one advantage was the operator rides too. It was the same type of trishaw Penang is using today. In 1938, The licensing of bicycles and tricycles is in force and was further regulated.

Before the war, trishaws were regarded as a novelty in Malaya, but they became a major form of transport during the Japanese Occupation. The current type of trishaw become popular in Penang around the period 1941. In Penang there were about 100 trishaws registered at the beginning of 1942, and around 2500 one year later in 1943,and out number the rickshaws.

From 1947, after the introduction of trishaws during the war, the association used the name Trishaw Peddlers Association and had a membership of over 1,000.

In 1950, the statistic at the time revealed 2,000 trishaws, and the number of the trishaws was maintained at the figure for some time, and no more new license issued.

The Straits Times, 25 August 1950, Page 7 reported with a photo of motor trishaw, and a Singapore motor firm has applied for permission to sell the Czech motor trishaw for $1,825. It was tested in Orchard Road, Singapore on 24/8/1950. The motor trishaw however was not well accepted in the market, may be it was too expensive at the time.

In 1954,4th of June, the proudest moment in the history of the trishaw riders. A total of 500 trishaws from Penang ride for a donation campaign for the Nanyang Univeristy in Singapore(为南大义踏). They collected substantial sum for the university.

Initially the trishaw was the basic transport for local people, especially for woman, children and elderly people. It was also a common phenomenon for woman working in entertainment sector taking trishaw to work. It was one of the attractive scenes for the young man during the time, looking at beautiful woman sitting in the trishaw passing by. Some rich baba family considered riding the trishaw was for bad woman, good woman will not ride the trishaw. The bicycles was the king of the road at that time.

In 1958, Boon Siew noticed the popularity of the Honda Super Cub motorbike which had been just introduced in Japan. He believed that this low-cost, high-efficiency machine would find a similarly receptive market in the rapidly urbanizing areas of Malaysia. The first Malaysian Honda showroom was set up on Pitt Street in Penang, very near the home of Boon Siew. As a sign of their deepening bond of trust and respect, the Japanese Honda Motor Co Ltd soon appointed Boon Siew the sole distributor for Honda motorbikes in the country just as the historic first 50 units of Honda 4-stroke cub were being imported into Malaysia. The Honda Cub became the best selling motorcycle in Malaysia, as it was cheaper than the American and British motorbikes.

The introduction of Honda Cup motorcycle by Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew, change the transport mode of Penang. The so called Honda Cup is picking up fast in the island. The trishaws were facing the real challenge of the days, with the easy installments payment of the hire purchase, soon Honda bikes are everywhere in the street.

In 1964, when the City Council was controlled by Socialist Front, a meeting was held between the association, trishaw owners, and trishaw riders, to discuss the possibility of issuance of new license. The meeting resolved that new license can be issued to create employment opportunity for the local people. In 1964, there were 2,125 trishaws.

Penang has five bus companies which operate from three different terminals. ... 1. Lim Seng Bus Co. Ltd. Terminal at Prangin Road, operate from Georgetown to Air Itam, along Dato Kramat Road 2. Hin Company The other terminal is at Prangin Road(now Jl. Dr. Lim Chwee Leong). Terminal Blue buses (Hin Bus Co.) operate from Georgetown, passing Pulau Tikus. and along the northern beaches to Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang 3. Penang Yellow Bus Company , terminal at Prangin Road, operate from Georgetown to Balik Pulau, passing Jelutong, Glugor 4.Sri Negara bus 5. City Council MPPP buses leave from the Leboh Victoria Terminal one street from the ferry terminal and go to various city destinations. The public buses posed a real threat to the trishaw service sector. The trishaw was forced to retreat to smaller market segment, and operate their service only in the city.

Then come the Vietnam War (from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975) in the 70s, which give trishaws riders some relief, as the GI having the R&R in Penang. R & R, or ‘rest and recreation’, gave soldiers serving in Vietnam a brief respite from the war. United States servicemen on a twelve-month tour of duty were given seven days R & R outside Vietnam. In the early part of the war they could spend this time in one of several Asian cities or Hawaii. From 1 July 1969 onwards, one of the popular destination was Penang. The GI were visiting bars and tourist areas with the bar girls. There were demand for trishaw transport to tourist destination, especially out of city. Their arrival become the new income source for the trishaw service sector in the island. The trishaw man were also acting as tourist guide, and begin to pick up some English to cater for the change. That was the time the trishaw riders saw the potential of trishaws in the tourist industry. Many of them have good time, and some hardworking one was able to save and own a new trishaw themselves.

In 1969, it increased to 2,562 trishaws. This was mainly due to good income received from GI visiting for R&R. Not all trishaws are owned by the riders, some of the riders rent the trishaws from the trishaws owners. The riders need to pay their rental daily. In 1969, it was reported that of 2,562 trishaws, only 446 trishaws are owned by the riders, the remaining 2,098 trishaws are owned by 49 owners in the state. From 1964 to 1969, there is only increase of about 400 trishaws. The local council considered that the number of the trishaws has reached the saturation point. There after the issuance of trishaw license was suspended.

When the Vietnam War was over in 1975, the trishaw was now restricted for sending school children from rich family to their schools or sending amahs or housewives to the morning markets. Then passenger cars and buses become common transport mode, cheaper Japanese cars like Toyota , Datsun, and later Honda cars are in the city……. The trishaws seems to know the swan song is coming….Some local residents began to complain that the trishaw caused congestion and it is an accident hazard s in the roads.

In the late 70s, 80s; Penang was going through industrialization, factories were opened up. In 1987,there are 1700 registered tricycle rickshaw (trishaw) pedallers. Penang people were now having better standard of living, children are going to schools, become better educated. Some of the young people found employment in factory, there were near full employment. Trishaw riders found succession problems. The riders that remained are now old and elderly……until today.

In 2001, 7th September, another trishaw ride donation campaign to collect fund for New Era College Malaysia(新纪元学院),200 trishaw riders from Penang ride for the campaign.

The number of trishaw and license holders between 2005-2009 are:

2005- 619 trishaws; 101 rider license holders
2006-246 trishaws; 210 rider license holders
2007-105 trishaws; 65 rider license holders
2008-230 trishaws; 180 rider license holders
2009-225 trishaws; 175 rider license holders

The trishaws sector now has passed its prime; and are facing the competition with taxi, bus, and private car ownership. It is now facing declining stage of their life cycle. It no longer considered as the basic transport mode for Penang people. Gone are the days when the local nyonya woman riding the trishaw to the wet market , temples or to the clinic. It is no longer the choice for public transport. It slowly becomes a mode of transportation merely for tourists. Now only the local Council and state government can ensure the survival of the trishaws in Penang.

You need to apply for Lesen Pengayuh Beca from MPPP to be a trishaw rider, with a fee RM24 and RM2, the initial outlay is low to start the service.

Penang Trishaw Riders' Association(槟城三轮车工友联合会).

Penang Trishaw Riders Assn. No. 276, Macallum Street Ghaut, 10300 Pulau Pinang

Beca riders/traishawman peddlers/ (三轮车夫)

The puller of the rickshaw in the pre wars days were called Rickshaw coolie, they are the runner who will pull the carriage by running on the road. The Chinese called them Lang-chia-pek(人力车夫). They are also called beca rider, or traishaw rider. The locals however popularly called them trishaw man.

In the old days Penang, there were many romance stories of trishaw man with their passenger, some even end up married. May be that is why some Nyonya from the rich family will tell you the story that good nyonya girls should not take the trishaw alone, otherwise people will think negative on you.

The trishaw peddlers are not only provide public transport in the street of the city of Penang. They are now act also as a tourist guide for their passengers. They are equipped with the latest information of the tourist sights along the tourism routes that they took. Some of these riders can speak good English and some foreign languages, which is helpful to the tourists.

The state government is now taking initiative to motorize the trishaws in Penang, which will make cycling easier for the peddlers.

The Future of Penang Trishaw riders

The state government is rebranding the trishaw service as tourism products, especially for the heritage city, where the trishaw is the most suitable transport to move in the narrow streets of the heritage city.

The critical success factor of the trishaw service in rebranding as tourism product is the succession factor; as the current peddlers are normally people of advance age, the succession issue become critical, the profession was not able to attract new blood to the industry. Without proactive planning by the state, the industry may be facing a natural death.

Trishaws is part and parcel of the living heritage of Georgetown, it should continue to remain as living heritage, not only for tourism, but also cultural heritage for the future generation.

So, while some trishaws are still around, seek them out and take a ride down memory lane......lang-chiaa, anyone....

Suggested articles/websites

1. Don’t let Trishaw Riders ruins Penang image;
2. Insurance Coverage for trishaw riders, fares;
4. My R & R in Penang, by Lt Col Hank Brandli USAF Ret, Melbourne, Fl.; interesting story on the author's R&R in Penang)
5. Penang trams, trolleybuses & railways: municipal transport history, 1880s-1963(2006), by Ric Francis, Colin Ganley, Areca Books, 2006
6. Rickshaw coolie: a people's history of Singapore, 1880-1940(2003), by James Francis Warren, NUS Press, 2003
7. Reluctant heroes: rickshaw pullers in Hong Kong and Canton, 1874-1954
By Chi Ming Fung, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland(2005),Hong Kong University Press, 2005


  1. The Municipal Commissioner who introduced them in 1936 was Mr Lim Eow Thoon.

  2. This article of my blog was appeared as part of the virtual book entitled Penang Old Fashion Ride in I hope she will quote the source, otherwise if it is commercially published. I reserved the legal right for further action.