A Splendid Little Colony: British Singapore 1819 - 1963

The Rickshaw Puller and His Colonial Master

An iconic image capturing the essence of European-Asian relations, highlighting contrasting postures, attire, and even colours.

Source: Gretchen Liu. Singapore: A Pictorial History
The work of a rickshaw puller was back-breaking, with these men having to toil for hours hauling their load of one or two fellow human beings. In an honest and open autobiography written in the 1980s, George Peet, an English reporter working in Singapore in the 1930s, recorded his conflicting emotions about these nameless men: “Most pathetic of all in the rickshaw industry was the old puller, who was no longer fit for the work but had to go on or starve. One could tell the old puller by the tattered canvas shoes, or sometimes only a tied-on wrapping of sacking, which protected his feet. The younger pullers always ran barefoot in city streets and on suburban roads. One of the first things I was told … was that when hiring a rickshaw I should always look first at the puller’s feet, to avoid hiring one of those broken-down old men (who of course moved much more slowly than the average puller, and so were no good to an impatient passenger in a hurry to get somewhere). It sounds heartless, and so it was, even if it was one of the facts of life. I confess with shame that I can remember one occasion when I acted upon that advice. I do not like to think now of the sadness I must have left behind when I glanced at the old coolie’s sacking-covered feet, and turned away to look for a younger man.”

The colonial hierarchy was very structured and operated on a self-regulating social mechanism, which maintained the Europeans at the apex and in a position of authority. This arrangement was for a long time tacitly accepted by all although it did trouble the conscience of some, as the following account by the Englishman George Peet shows:

“I remember my manager, himself one of the European old-timers of Singapore, once remarking to me – “There are few pleasures in life to compare to riding behind a good [rickshaw] puller on a sunny morning”; and he was quite right. But, you will ask, was not your enjoyment of those rides along St. Andrew’s Road marred by qualms? Was is right for a healthy young Englishman to use another human being as if he were a draft animal? Well, I often mused upon that question as I contemplated my puller’s brawny back sweating in the heat and his muscular legs moving like pistons between the shafts. Was it really worse than letting a Chinese sampan man undertake the labour of rowing me out to a ship in the roads? Logically, perhaps not; yet one could not quite rid oneself of the feeling that one occupation was compatible with human dignity, and the other was not…. On the other hand, my puller needed a job and was obviously glad to have this one, and the freer and more independent life that it allowed, rather than working as a coolie in a godown or a rubber factory. And, after all, everywhere in Chinatown you would see Chinese coolies dragging heavy loads on the carts, and nobody ever questioned that.” (George Peet, Rickshaw Reporter 1985)

A Splendid Little Colony: British Singapore 1819 - 1963 | Singapore

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by Stephen