Urban Proletarian, or Three Wheels of Squeaking Doom: Pedicabs in Beijing

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Jan 22, 2002 | Destinations: China / Beijing

They're back and more omnipresent than ever. While Hong Kong is saying dzai jyen to the last remnants of its once famous rickshaw fleet, the three wheeled pedicab is making a resurgence in Beijing. Our correspondent Joshua Samuel Brown, himself a former pedicab driver for Seattle's Casual Cab Company, set out for a ride and a chat with his three wheeled comrades on the streets of Beijing.

At 58 years of age, Mr. G has the body of a panther, earned perhaps through his years of dedication to his trade as a pedicab driver, or perhaps from his 30+ years as a practicing martial artist. I had already told Mr. G that I would be returning to interview him, and he was apparently happy enough about it to put me in a full headlock. "This is a Wushu move,"

He tells, his forearm wrapped around my neck like a vice. I am impressed with this. This will be an interesting interview for sure.

To prepare for our chat, I had downloaded a picture from the Internet of a close approximation of my own pedicab, from back in the day when I was riding for Casual Cabs in Seattle. Mr. G looks at it for a second and dismisses it. "It's OK, but mine is better...this one is all boxy, it has no character." I have to admit that he is right. His cab is adorned with colored tassels and a huge brass bell. It is clear that this cab is his and his alone, day in and day out. Mine was mine for the day only, and Casual Cabbies had to contend for the limited number of quality cabs each day.

"But look, mine had toe-clips" I say "That gives you more power on the upstroke"

"Toe clips!" He snorts derisively "I don't need em, their just foot traps...feel my calves!" He shows me his calves, which are lean and hard. I keep my toe clip opinions to myself.

Mr. G. is not the aggressive type, prefering to take a Zen approach to his profession, waiting for customers to approach him. He is hardly the pedicab driver warned against in the holy bible of travel books, Lonely Planet's China. This gem of prejudice, from which I now quote directly, reads: "Unfortunately, most of the drivers are so aggressive that you have to ask yourself if It's worth bothering with them. Almost without exception, A reasonable fare will be quoted, but when you arrive at your destination it will immediately be multiplied by 10...another tactic is to quote a price like 10 (RMB) and then demand $10 (USD)."

I translate this for Mr. G., and his face remains perfectly calm. "Well, I'm sure that there are some drivers who do that, but there are bad apples in every profession. The writer of that book obviously didn't have a good attitude from the beginning." I offer to take a picture of Mr. G. ripping the thick book in half, but he demurs. "not dignified," he explains, which is a pity because I'm sure he could have done it. For the record, Mr. G (and most of the drivers I speak to) has a license to operate. You can check for the plate on the back of the cab, if you like.

Mr. G. sticks to his spot directly in front of the Friendship store on Jiang Gwor road. This is his spot. It is a slow day for business, slightly overcast, and Mr. G and I spend an hour chatting, letting the few potential customers there slip by. After a while, Mr. B, who keeps to his spot a few meters away on the street side of the friendship store, joins us. I buy a bag of donuts, but wind up eating them all by myself. "Sweetened crap like that is no good for the long haul" Mr. B tells me. "Carbohydrates and Chinese Tea, that's the ticket." So we sit there talking shop, watching as various groups of lao wai walk by impassively.

"Why do you suppose they do that, just pass by without even looking at you" I ask them.

"I don't know" Replies Mr. G "It's strange really, there is so much hustling going on in this city that maybe they're afraid of being cheated. That travel guide report certainly cant help matters, though."

A few more white ghosts pass by, and I decide to take a decisive, if not somewhat manic act in order to help my brother Pedicab drivers out.

"Step right up, don't crowd don't shove plenty of room for all go home in the ancient fashion of the Emperors! Step right up..."

But still, there are no takers. Unlike the remaining rickshaws in Hong Kong, which are really just for tourist photo opportunities, Beijing's pedicab's are a legitimate, environmentally correct form of transport, used by guests and locals alike. But not today, apparently; Most of the foreigners passing by just give the pedicabs a quick glance and walk on. I finally get to chatting with a young Couple, students from Taiwan and Britain.

"I take Pedicabs all the time" The man tells me "But if I didn't speak Chinese I might not. They'll take advantage of you if you don't." I introduce the young couple to Mr. G. and Mr. B.

Their look is one of "We wouldn't cheat you...really." The young couple are unmoved, and head across the street to eat McDonalds.

Mr. B and I start swapping Pedicab stories, but he seems reticent to share. I tell him about the time in Seattle when I had picked up a couple on Pike street who told me to "go fast and not look back". They wound up making out in my cab as I sped down First Avenue to Pioneer Square.

"That would never happen in China...our culture would not permit it" Mr. B. Says.

"Yeah but what about two foreigners..." I say, and he laughs. "Sure, why not?"

Pedaling forward into the past

Pedicabs and other forms of human powered transportation are not something new in Beijing. The pedicab is perhaps the most natural and humane transition from the Sedan Chairs used since ancient times in China and in the Middle East, and in Europe during the Middle Ages. During these times the sedan chair was more than just a means of conveyance for the rich and powerful, they were also a symbol of status. Constructed of Bamboo, the traditional Chinese sedan chair consisted of an enclosed frame adorned with silks, and four handles for the sedan bearers. The station and rank of the unseen passengers were frequently indicated by color, and markings on the outside, as well as by identical uniforms of the bearers, numbering from two to eight who carried the chair.

In old Beijing, Imperial family members were the only ones permitted to ride in yellow sedan chairs. During the Chi'ng dynasty (1644-1911) The highest military honor was called the Pa-t'u-lu, and this was usually awarded only to Generals whose military prowess had greatly impressed the Emperor. Being honored in this gave the recipient the authorization to paint the props of their sedan chairs scarlet or purple, a most auspicious color.

During colonial times, the sedan was largely replaced y the rickshaw, an improvement in that it only required one person to convey passengers. While the rickshaw is no longer widely used in Modern China, there are some places where you can go to have your picture taken with one, if that's your thing.

During the cultural revolution, bicycle taxis and rickshaws were swept away throughout China, and such trades were thought to be a crass example of bourgeois worker exploitation. Pedicabs began to be seen again in China in the mid 1980's, and have become as much a part of the landscape as sedan chairs once were. Pedicabs are not just an Asian phenomenon, however. Many cities throughout America also have a fleet of Pedicabs operating on less congested streets. While once thought to be just something for tourists, pedicab enthusiasts in the USA are touting the trade as a viable and environmentally friendly alternative to the infernal combustion engine.

Not just for gen-xers anymore

The Pedicab drivers I meet in Beijing are a lot like the ones I once worked alongside in Seattle - individualistic, opinionated, and proud about of their physical prowess. I ask Mr. G if he hopes to one day buy a taxicab, and he laughs.

"You wouldn't catch me driving one of those traps, all fat and lazy with no freedom."

He rubs the brass bell of his rig lovingly - "This pedicab is all mine, I can decorate it like I want, work when I want, and practice Wu-Shu whenever I don't have a customer.

I might make more money, but I'd lose this -- " He says, pulling up a loose trouser leg to reveal the muscular calf underneath. Mr. G then strikes a graceful Wushu pose "Look at this, no other job could keep me so strong!"

But there is are differences, as well. When I rode in Seattle, pedicabing was just one of the options I had as a twenty something gen-xer living in the capital of Grunge. The cab wasn't mine, and I didn't have to work through all weather just to keep a roof over my head. For the riders in Beijing, their cabs represent a tremendous investment, and one that needs to keep paying for itself. Mr. G's rig cost him 2500 RMB, a considerable expense. If a pedicab driver appears just a bit aggressive to get your business, understand that they have bills to pay and mouths to feed just like you.

During the course of writing of this article, I got to know quite a few pedicab drivers hanging out down by the friendship store and elsewhere. While most seemed to be honest working folk, I can't say that I liked all of them. One driver, when asked if he'd ever overcharged a foreigner, bluntly said "Sure, I try t get as much money as I can, you guys are all rich." He later went on to berate me about something the American government had done as if I had something to do with it, so I probably wouldn't have hit it off well with him in any social circles.

Taking a pedicab in Beijing shouldn't cost more than a regular taxi, although obviously the distances will be more limited. People who choose not to take the words of the holy lonely planet at face value are supporting a vibrant, ecologically sound traffic alternative. At the very least, Pedicabbing gives gainful employment to people who otherwise might be kicking down doors with their heavily muscled legs. Bargain reasonably, but Remember that the good book says "One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." (Proverbs Ch. 11, verses 24-25).

Pedaling Home Again

Driving me back to my apartment, I ask Mr. G what he thinks the best way that I could help him improve his Business might be. "Teach me some English" He says.

I decide to teach him some basic numbers to help him bargain more clearly with his customers, to avoid. I teach him the numbers one through ten, and the different between "teen" and "ty" at the end of a two-digit number. This might be the cause for the misunderstandings seemingly suffered by the author of the guide.


I teach him, and he repeats. A few minutes later he is riding off into the distance, practicing to him.


Mr. G. Will do well, I think, in this brave new economy.

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