Twilight of the trishaws in Singapore
Once a common mode of transport, trishaws are now a tourist novelty. KERRI HENG (firstname.lastname@example.org) finds out whether they are becoming a thing of the past
The three-wheeled vehicles were one of Singapore's earliest mode of public transport.
Trishaws ferried housewives to the market, children to schools and couples on dates, charging 20 to 50 cents a ride.
Today, they have evolved to offer novelty rides to tourists, taking them through the small street lanes in Bugis, Little India and by the Singapore River.
Operator Trishaw Uncle charges $39 for a 30-minute ride through Bugis and Little India.
The supervisor at Trishaw Uncle, Mr Sim, tells The New Paper on Sunday that when it started four years ago, Trishaw Uncle had only 50 trishaws. The fleet has since doubled, and he says it is not going out of business any time soon,
"Business got better over the years. With the standardisation of trishaw riding, everything is regulated, such as licensing, rules to follow and a standard attire - everything is now more reliable."
Trishaw Uncle is the only remaining "licenced" trishaw operator here, with the competition dying out over the years though there are a few scattered freelance riders such as those who pick up tourists outside Raffles Hotel. (See report right.)
A trishaw rider can earn about $1,200 a month, Mr Sim says.
At 36 years old, Mr Alex Goh is one of the company's younger trishaw riders.
Despite his father's objections, Mr Goh fell in love with trishaw riding about a decade ago.
"My dad said it was a job with no prospects and that the trishaw line was more for the elderly.
"But I just went ahead and did what I liked. He kept quiet and never said anything after that."
While he has left trishaw riding twice to work in other industries, he found himself back at it again three years ago.
"I like interacting with the tourists," he says, adding that he also enjoys the freedom he gets in his job.
"I have no fixed meal times. While waiting for my turn (to ferry passengers), I can go around and window-shop. It's a free-and-easy, own-time-own-target job, " says Mr Goh, who speaks fluent English and Mandarin.
Trishaw riders are usually seen chatting, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee as they wait for passengers at Trishaw Uncle's booth at Albert Mall Trishaw Park in Bugis.
Mr Liew Chong Fah, 61, the leader among Trishaw Uncle's riders, has been at the job for 15 years.
Mr Liew says one of the perks of his job is getting tips in foreign currencies.
"I've gotten notes and coins from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Korea. I keep some of them and give some to my relatives and friends," he says.
Mr Liew, who speaks Mandarin and some English, has also picked up a few Japanese and Korean phrases from years of ferrying tourists around.
He happily rattles off "one person" and "two people" in Japanese and Korean, and says that tourists love it when he speaks to them their native languages.
Trishaw riding brings back fond memories for him too. As a young boy, he used to sit in trishaws with his mother.
"It used to be very cheap, just 20 or 30 cents for a ride. The trishaws were very small, with seating space for only one adult and one child," he says.
"They used to cycle around the neighbourhood, like from the market to our home, when we carried heavy bags of groceries." These days, local customers are rare, the riders acknowledge, though Mr Liew occasionally gets passengers who take their elderly parents on a trishaw ride to relive old memories.
On a lighter note, Mr Goh says he has no problem ferrying heavyweight passengers.
"Sometimes, I ride two (plus-sized) tourists squeezed together in one seat," he says, explaining that there are both mechanical and motor controls on the trishaws.
As the lead rider, Mr Liew feels a lot of stress.
"It's not simple. I must be familiar with all the routes."
He has funny anecdotes to share, including passengers who say they want to use the toilet when they are in his trishaw.
But he thinks there is a risk that there won't be enough manpower to sustain the tradition.
"Young people are so educated these days, who wants to ride (trishaws)? They will have to endure riding for a long time under the hot sun," he says. But he is opting not to worry too much for now.
"I just take each day as it comes," he says.
'Freelance' riders: Every man for himself
Occasionally, you can spot freelance riders on the roads in Singapore's civic district. Some park themselves outside Raffles Hotel to wait for passengers.
One of them, who declined to be named, tells TNPS in Mandarin: "Trishaws are going to be scrapped soon."
He gestured at a Hippo tour bus on the road and says: "We're competing with so many others (who provide tourists alternative sightseeing transport) now."
The man, who looks to be in his 50s, says that on some days, he gets two or three jobs. And on other days, he gets zero customers.
"My customers are mostly Caucasian, sometimes Korean. No locals," he says.
He shares that in the past, trishaw riders were hired to fetch children to and fro school.
These days, he charges customers $18 to $20 a ride.
We saw three other freelance riders on the roads outside Raffles Hotel two weeks ago. Their trishaws had well-worn and weather-beaten seats.
We also found another freelance rider at Clarke Quay.
The 61-year-old man, who wants to be known only as Mr Tan, says that he has been riding a trishaw for more than 30 years.
He now rides part-time at his leisure.
"I've retired (from cycling full-time). My children are grown-up and working. I don't want to stay at home all day; I want to exercise and keep myself active," he says in Mandarin.
"(Trishaw riding) used to be very good, we could earn up to a $100 a day," he says.
Now, he earns up to $45 a day.
And on some days, he gets no customers at all. But he does not mind.
"My daughters tell me to take it easy," he says.
Mr Tan explains that trishaw riders like him used to have a licence from the Registry of Vehicles (now the Land Transport Authority), but they were not issued after a period of time.
He charges $30 for a 40-minute ride.
Mr Tan says he prefers to be a freelancer as he finds that being employed under a company was too much of a hassle.
"Everything had to be kept on record. And I could only get my pay once a week," he says.
He says that freelance trishaw riders tend to ply the streets along Raffles Hotel and Clark Quay, estimating that there are about only 10 of them around.
But here is an interesting nugget: The freelance trishaw riders are not friends with each other.
"We don't talk to each other. We don't cooperate," Mr Tan says.
Do you need a licence?
“Companies operating trishaw tours, such as Trishaw Uncle, are required to apply for a Travel Agent licence from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB),” says Ms Ong Ling Lee, Director of Travel Agents and Tourist Guides from the STB.
She adds that all trishaw operators and individual riders would need to seek other necessary licensing from the Land Trasport Authority (LTA).
A spokesman from the LTA says that it has stopped issuing new Trishaw Rider’s Vocational Licences to individual trishaw riders since September 2001.
She also says that there are currently about 31 existing individual riders who have a Trishaw Rider’s Vocational Licence – their licences are valid till these riders reach the age of 70.
Under the Trishaw Block Registration Scheme jointly administered by the STB and the LTA, trishaw operators, such as Trishaw Uncle,are required to first apply for a Travel Agent licence from STB , and then subsequently for a Trishaw Block Registration Certificate from LTA.
The Trishaw Block Registration Certificate will be issued by LTA, with STB‘s recommendation.