The beca in Singapore

5 01 2020

Deployed these days to take tourists for a ride in both literal and metaphorical sense, the trishaw was a mode of transport many in Singapore relied on in the past. A pedal powered mini-taxi on three wheels, the beca, becak or sa leng chia – as it was commonly known – was convenient as a means to get about town, the market, work, school, and for my maternal grandmother … to get to Kampong Jawa (the Arab Street area) to stock up on supplies of bedak-sejuk and batik sarong-sarong from Indonesia.

A Singapore trishaw, seen in 2017.

There have been several suggestions on when the beca first made an appearance in Singapore. The very first designs of the three-wheeled passenger carrying vehicle took the form of a crude cycle pulled or pushed bath-chair, appearing not long after the 1880 introduction of the jinrikisha, ricksha, or rickshaw to the streets of Singapore. One example is seen in an 1886 advertisement placed by Cameron, Dunlop and Co. for a “Upton Park Passenger Tricycle” invented by Mr. C. E. Read of Upton Park, London. Another variation is described by an article in the 21 May 1892 edition of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser as a “cyclesha”, “bicycle jinrikisha” or “bicycle bath-chair”, manufactured by Humber Cycles. The device consisted of a brown wicker bath-chair on two wheels with a bicycle attachment behind and was thought of as the “jinrikisha of the future”.

An 1886 advertisement for the No. 2 version of “Read’s Upton Park Passenger Tricycle”.

In August 1912, patents for a “pedal jinrikisha” in the Straits Settlements (and subsequently  in the Federated Malay States and Johor) were granted to Messrs. Christopher Pilkington and St. V. B. Down. This version – with the passenger seated in front and pushed by a bicycle – was similar in fashion to the Humber “bicycle bath-chair”. A prospectus issued by a company set up in early 1913 by Mr. Pilkington for the commercialisation of the invention described this “pedal jinrikisha” as consisting of an “improved jinrikisha body fitted to a wheeled machine propelled by pedals, with free wheel and geared for hilly as well as level roads … with the driver seater behind the passenger so as to cause no inconvenience to the passenger”. The contraption also featured pneumatic-tyres for comfort and efficient brakes.

An 1886 advertisement for the No. 1 version of “Read’s Upton Park Passenger Tricycle”.

It would not be until April 1914 that the first pedal jinrikishas or “pedalshas” hit the streets. Fifteen were licensed on 9 April, Maundy Thursday, for a nine-day trial period and put into service on Good Friday. Although the pedalshas seemed to have much promise, nothing came out of the trials. The Registrar of Vehicles, the rather portly Mr. W. E. Hooper, would be taken on a ride on one on Easter Sunday 1914 when it was reported that the “sha” changed shaped considerably as the 15½ stone (98½ kg) municipal official climbed on board. The less than impressed Mr Hooper pointed to several areas for improvement, chief among them the difficulty the rider had in turning the vehicle – which he felt would cause a great deal of trouble on the crowded streets of the municipality.

Penang’s first trishaw, introduced in 1936.

The next the municipality would hear of pedal propelled rickshaw would be in 1936 – when the introduction of a Chinese designed version of the vehicle, referred to as a “trishaw”, hitting the streets of Rangoon before making an appearance in Penang. Although there were attempts to also bring these trishaws to Singapore, the move fell through as the Municipal Commission felt that the vehicles were unsuitable for use on the congested streets of Singapore.

A trishaw in Penang, 2009.

A (non-tourist) trishaw in Malacca in 2014.

While the idea did come up for discussion in 1941 with a proposal put forward to license up to 150 “pedal rickshas” a year – two-thirds of which were to be offered to rickshaw owners to take their vehicles off the streets, it would be the Japanese who would lay claim to setting in motion the move to have rickshaws replaced by trishaws for the “alleviation of the lot of the ricksha puller”.  The first ten “ricksha-cycles” – manufactured by the Syonan Tricycle Co. based in Orchard Road 0 were put into service on 7 August 1942 during the Japanese Occupation. Described by the Syonan Shimbun of 8 August 1942, as “a bicycle to the left of which a metal frame is attached”, with a “trellaced (trellised?) wooden floor placed on the metal frame on which a cane settee rests” – it would appear that this version of the trishaw was quite similar to what is seen in modern day Singapore. The aim of the Japanese authorities was to put some 350 trishaws – also referred to during the occupation as “sanrinshas” or tricycles – on the streets of Singapore.

Fares for Rickshaws and Trishaws published in 1942.

 

SINGAPORE: SIGHTSEEING. 8 AND 9 SEPTEMBER 1945, SINGAPORE.

A trishaw carrying two sightseeing British sailors from the reoccupying forces down High Street in September 1945. Source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (A 30587).

The Japanese “initiative” wasn’t quite as successful as envisaged. Rickshaws continued to ply the streets during the occupation even as trishaws grew in numbers and in popularity. By the end of the war, trishaw numbers grew to some 4000 and there were however some 3500 rickshaws still in use. It would only be in the years that followed the war that the jinrikisha would disappear completely – with the Municipal Commission announcing in mid-1946 that it would not renew expiring rickshaw licenses. This saw the trishaw rule the streets – at least as a non-motorised form of fare carrying transport – from 1 May 1947.

A Singapore Airlines advertisement depicting the Singapore Girl on a trishaw.

The rapid growth of the motor vehicle, rising affluence and a significant improvement in public bus services, would lead to the demise of the trishaw as a means of getting around in the 1970s and if not for the interest that the trishaw draws from tourists, the once ubiquitous trishaw would like much of the Singapore I had grown to love as a child, have become a thing of the past.

A trishaw on the streets of postwar Singapore (Fullerton Square / Battery Road).

 

 


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