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Trishaws – Another Sunset Industry

The three-wheelers that plied the streets of George Town before the taxi, Uber and Grab, helped define the city’s culture – and are becoming a rarity. Penang Monthly takes a look at two personalities enrooted in the trishaw business.

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Choo Yew Choon produces and repairs trishaws. In fact, he is the fourth generation in his family running the business. He took over the business, Hup Huat, in 1989, and according to the 59-year-old, there were about seven shops that repaired trishaws in the 1990s; three or four produced new trishaws.

Today, Choo is one of the very last trishaw makers in Penang.

The shop used to be located in Lebuh Chulia. However, rising rental led him to look for a more affordable place, and eventually in 2002 he settled for Jalan Pintal Tali. But even here, the monthly rent was to be raised by RM300 every two years. Choo currently pays RM1,800 per month and should costs go any higher, it will be difficult to maintain the business.

Choo works alone. Replacing punctured tyres is a common task. In fact, he notes that the seat cushions, folding covers and umbrellas of trishaws are rarely defective, and some peddlers are able to repair these items themselves.

In the past, Choo had a thriving business repairing hawkers’ tricycles – each repair could draw in around RM2,000-RM3,000 – but business slowed considerably and Choo now spends most of his time concentrating on trishaws.

Media publicity certainly helps his business, but so does diversifying his skills. Choo also repairs bicycles and hawker stalls, and does some welding. “If you only know how to work with wood but not metal, then it is really difficult to master the skills needed for producing a trishaw, as trishaws consist of three main elements: wood for the seats, rubber for the wheels and metal for the frame,” Choo adds.

Trishaws and hawkers’ tricycles contribute 50% of his income. Bicycle repair makes up 25% and the rest comes from welding and business deals with metal materials.

It takes 20 days to produce a trishaw. The folding covers are usually made by Choo himself using wooden materials that are locally sourced. The wheels, tyres, pedals and gears, however, are mostly imported – mainly from China – as are the seats. It costs him around RM2,800 to complete a trishaw, but with labour taken into consideration the total production cost is around RM6,500. Profits are slim, and he works hard every day just to cover costs.

Choo has three sons, but none of them are interested in continuing the business. “Currently I have no plans to retire,” he says, but adds that if rent continues to increase to the point it becomes unaffordable then he might have no choice but to retire early. He feels that if the state government could subsidise the industry, the future might be brighter. Otherwise, George Town might see the last of its trishaw makers disappear in a matter of years.


The Oldest Trishaw Pedaller in George Town

Low Sek Kooi is a Hokkien who speaks very good Cantonese, modest Mandarin, and limited Malay and Teowchew. At 86, the native Penangite has been pedalling the trishaw for 67 years, and is in fact one of the longest serving – as well as oldest – trishaw peddlers in Penang.

It was in 1949, with Penang still recovering from the Second World War, when Low began his career as a trishaw pedaller: a decision made from necessity and not choice.

Staying just outside George Town, Low usually hangs around Komtar and works every day from morning till evening. Even so, he only earns RM900 to RM1,100 each month, despite working in sun and rain. Low dislikes rainy days. The work is tougher on his old bones and business is slow.

He has no side income. He owns his trishaw, so there is no rental cost that he has to pay, but he consequently has to bear all trishaw repair and maintenance costs himself. He hopes for for housing support from the government so that he doesn’t need to rent a place to stay.

Low has no plans to retire despite the drastic drop in the number of passengers over recent years. The growth in the bike rental business has highly affected his business. Most of Low’s passengers now are foreign tourists, and while his English may be limited, he looks forward to the daily conversations with his passengers.

Tan Lii Inn graduated with a Master’s Degree from Korea University. He is currently an analyst at Penang Institute.
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