January 19th, 2020

When did the pedicab come to Shanghai?

From this:


...to this:

Image: Mark Kauffman

In 1873, Shanghai saw its first rickshaw, imported from Japan. Soon, rickshaws were adopted for passenger transportation. By the end of the 1930s, there were over 40,000 registered rickshaws 黄包车 in Shanghai – one for every 120 passengers. The public pullers numbered over 80,000 people; there were also private rickshaws. It is estimated, almost incredibly, that 340,000 people, or 10% of the city's population, were involved in the rickshaw business in this way or other.

The above stats come from the PhD thesis Wheels That Transformed the City by Zhou Fang. Unfortunately, it does not touch on pedicabs, so the data is hard to obtain. According to Lu Hanchao, pedicabs 三轮车 were first adopted in 1942 and replaced the rickshaws by 1947. There is, however, evidence of their earlier use. Already in 1922 a handful of pedicabs were running the streets of Shanghai – they were owned by the wealthy Chinese who first saw them at the beach fronts in the US and Europe. In March 1923, the Municipal Council of the International Settlement agreed to grant a trial permit for the first 200 pedicabs, and a year later a journalist of the North-China Daily News took a close look at the first public pedicab: "To the casual roamer of Shanghai roads, with their high-power motors, brokers' traps and ricshas, this was indeed a strange sight – a combination of a reduced old-style big front wheel bicycle with a rather swanky-looking but low-swung ricsha attached behind. It is a ladies' type of cycle with no cross-bar."

The journalist attempted a trial ride: "There was no jerk at all, and the motion was smooth and forward, with not the usual up and down motion so common to the ricsha as it trotted along, but there was a sinuous side-to-side motion until the ricsha was well under way. The passenger sits lower than in an ordinary ricsha and one seems more at ease with nothing before one but the strong back and pedalling limbs of the coolie." A test drive from Route Doumer to the Astor House took only 20 minutes. The journalist also found it easy to pedal and steer the pedicab. These early models, built in Brussels, had four wheels; later, the pedicabs started to be made locally and became tricycles.

The adoption of the pedicab was, however, slow and fraught with bureaucratic obstacles. Licenses to commercial operators were routinely refused. Pedicabs – ridiculously – were not permitted to cross the border between the foreign settlements. In the early 1930s, the only use for the pedicabs was in goofy sports competitions. But the Japanese occupation, which started in 1937, soon led to the shortage of the gasoline, and the pedicab was remembered. In 1942, the Municipal Council started to grant licenses again, and by the end of the year there were almost 1,800 pedicabs operating in the Settlement. As spare parts began to be made locally, pedicabs became predominant. After the end of occupation, in 1945, many rickshaw pullers were becoming pedicab drivers ("pedicab workers," as the Communist authorities prescribed to call them in 1951). In 1956, rickshaws were officially abolished by the Communist government, while (some of) the pedicabs remained, continuing to carry passengers even during the Cultural Revolution and well into the 1970s.

[See the images from different eras...]

Nanking Road in 1925; rickshaws prevail:


The Pedicab Lancers competing in a joke tournament in 1934:


The ever-popular mocking of the rickshaw trade: Ladies' Night in the American Club in 1935:


Pedicab drivers resting in a quiet lane off Peking Road, near the Bund, in 1937–1941:

Image: Harrison Forman

Pullers lined up their rickshaws along Avenue Edward VII (now East Yan'an Road), also 1937–1941:

Image: Harrison Forman

The uneven availability of rickshaws is the subject of this woodcut cartoon from 1942. In the left panel, multiple pullers are accosting a single theatergoer stepping out of the Capitol Theatre, on Museum Road. In the central panel, the crowd of spectators leaving the Grand Theatre on Bubbling Well Road are fighting for the attention of a single puller. In the right panel, rickshaw pullers are fighting for the same passenger:

Image: David Bloch collection

Traffic on the Bund, showing both pedicabs and rickshaws, in 1945:

Image: Walter Arrufat

Rickshaw and pedicab side by side, with a car and bicycles in the background, in 1945:

Image: Getty

Rickshaws, pedicabs and cars stuck in traffic on a wet day, in 1946:

Image: George Silk (probably)

Pedicab driver in the 1940s:

Image: USHMM

"How to keep dry in a pedicab," in 1947:


Rickshaw pullers and pedicab drivers in traffic, in 1947:

Image: Mark Kauffman

Rickshaws and pedicabs on a bridge across Suzhou Creek, in 1949:

Image: Soviet filmmakers

Motorized pedicab shown off in 1950:


Old passenger pedicab repurposed for cargo, in 1974: