Who invented the rickshaw?

Rickshaws could almost be retired, but their charm and style still attract fans. Once the most popular form of public transport in big cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong, there are only a handful of places where you can still hop on a rickshaw. Below we introduce you to their history, the role of the rickshaw driver and where to catch another ride.

What is a rickshaw?

The classic definition of what a rickshaw is a cart that seats one or two people propelled by a human runner - on their feet - modern bicycle and auto rickshaws don't count. The cab is attached to a pair of wheels and the runner carried two sticks used to rickshaw the pivot point. While the poster book image of rickshaws often includes oriental flourishes on the design, the truth is functional contraptions of most were.

Who invented the rickshaw is a hotly debated issue, with Japan, Britain, and the US all claiming ownership. What we do know is that rickshaws first became popular in Japan in the 1870s and that the word rickshaw comes from the Japanese word jinrikisha, which means vehicle without a motor. It is said to have been invented in Japan by a European missionary to wear around his sick wife. At one point the country had 21,000 licensed rickshaw drivers.

By the turn of the century, the rickshaw had reached India and China, where it really took off. Thousands were made and they became the preferred mode of transportation for the colonial elite, both to escape the sweltering heat and to show their bank balances. It was in these countries that the image of a fat colonialist being pulled around by a curved became infamous over local.

Where can I find a rickshaw?

The rise of the bus and other forms of public transport killed almost all rickshaw business by the end of World War II. Mao banned it completely from China as a symbol of working class oppression in 1949, while India and most other Asian countries soon followed suit.

The only major use of rickshaws left on the streets is in Calcutta. Here rickshaw runners unions have fiercely fought bans and an estimated 20,000 wagons still ferry passengers around the city. In contrast, Hong Kong only has three rickshaws still in operation, almost exclusively geared towards tourists.

Other cities where the rickshaw still runs smoothly include London, Dublin and Los Angeles, where they are used as tourist attractions in certain areas. Just don't expect the cheap prices from the old days.

The Life of the Rckshaw Driver

An integral part of the rickshaw's fall was the conditions endured by the drivers. Their role as “human horses has become increasingly distanced from modern values.

Rickshaw runners usually worked long days for poor pay and the rickshaw acted as her own mobile home, where she also slept. In Asia - at the turn of the century - it was often the only job that rural immigrants can find in the city, and most lived in poverty. In Calcutta most of them still do.

Drivers carted around people, goods and even police officers; up mountains and through monsoon rains. Many wealthier residents, like those who lived on Hong Kong Peak, used them as their regular form of transportation before trams or trains where introduced. When faced with a passenger of considerable weight the driver would ask another driver to lend a hand and extra - and like a Ryanair baggage charge.

The debate over the rickshaw drivers in Calcutta rumbles on with human rights groups claiming they are modern day slaves, while many rickshaw drivers claim that a ban would result in unemployment and starvation. Some people claim that the majority of their passengers are also lower class and that the rickshaws are the only way for them to get around during the knee deep monsoon rains.

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