Covid-19 Exclusives: Are Our Trishaws Doomed?

loading Photo: Alexander Fernandez.

THE END OF World War II introduced trishaws to Penang, and between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, more than 2,500 of these vehicles plied the streets of George Town. It was the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98 that caused its enduring popularity to plummet.

A decade later, following George Town’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, the demand for trishaws was once again revived as tourists descended on the city by the thousands. Its numbers though have been greatly reduced. Only 130 remain on the island today, with 30 based in Batu Ferringhi and 100 meandering the inner city.

Fourth generation trishaw-maker and repairer Choo Yew Choon has had to pivot his business to bicycle repairing and welding works instead. Photo: Alexander Fernandez.

Trishaw operator Koay Beng Hong owns about 50 trishaws which he rents out to peddlers at a fee of RM2 per month. It is no secret that most of these peddlers are homeless, but are still intent on making their own living. Business has been sluggish since March, Koay says. Unlike in the aftermath of 9/11 during which Koay managed to recover his losses within a few months, Covid-19 is in a league of its own. According to Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the tourism sector will need four years to bounce back.1 And based on feedback from local tourism players, it is feared that without proper planning, the recovery process may take longer than even that.

The trishaw business is largely dependent on Penang’s cruise tourism. But with border closures, Koay is struggling to have his money reimbursed by cruise operators, who’d previously recruited his services to show visitors around the city. Despite this, he has put a pause on collecting the peddlers’ rental payments. “There’s a Chinese idiom, when you drink water, think of its source. It’s the right thing to do since they were pivotal in helping to grow my business.”

But if these trishaws aren’t used over an extended period of time, they are likely to fall into disrepair. “I need to make sure that for the time being, they are kept in good condition,” he says. Be that as it may, fourth generation trishaw-maker and repairer Choo Yew Choon says he has had to pivot his business to bicycle repairing and welding works instead.

To Promote or to Phase Out?

There is no shortage of ideas for modernising the trishaw, but Koay has his doubts. “If trishaws become motorised, how different will they be then from taxis or Grab cars?” he asks. Adding to his worries is the CAT bus, a shuttle bus service that allows locals and tourists alike to move around George Town free-of-charge.

The trishaw’s heritage value is under threat and it’s sadly losing its edge in Penang’s tourism market, especially where domestic tourism is concerned. “It’s ironic how international visitors are able to see the cultural significance of our trishaws, but not us locals.”

It does not help matters that the trishaws are also peddled by homeless individuals who do not have the means to purchase the requisite face masks and hand sanitisers to guard themselves against the pathogen, what more to ensure the trishaws’ sanitation.

More importantly, can trishaws still be packaged as a tourism product in the age of Covid-19? A high degree of cooperation and promotion is desperately needed from industry players to ensure that trishaws do not disappear from our streets forever.

Its fate now rests with us Penangites.

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