Thursday, 8 August 2013

Sepia Saturday 189: Ode to the Rickshaw-wallah


Sepia Saturday with Marilyn Brindley and Alan Burnett

This week I'll take you globe-trotting once again. While I suspect you'll be treated to a myriad of contraptions powered by the internal combustion engine by other Saturday Sepians, I'm choosing to use a more environmentally friendly, if not particularly pc, means of transport.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Jinnirickshaw, undated probably c.1880s, unidentified photographer
Albumen print (141 x 95mm) mounted on printed card (155 x 112mm)
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This mounted albumen print of a non-standard format was purchased on a whim, partly because it's a well composed and exposed photograph of an interesting subject, representing a way of life that's pretty much disappeared, but also because it doesn't merely reinforce the colonial stereotype of white sahib being conveyed from one shady verandah to another by a rickshaw-wallah.

Judging from the style of print and mount, I estimate that it was probably printed in the 1880s or 1890s, and I think it may have been taken somewhere in the Indian sub-continent. The printed text at lower left appears to relate to the subject, rather than the photographer or publisher, and suggests that the photograph may have been produced in some numbers. Indeed, I found another copy of the image here, dated 1895.

The derivation of jinnirickshaw is suggested by The Free Dictionary to be from three Middle Chinese words, jin (person), lik (strength) and chai (vehicle) via the Japanese word jinrikisha. My Concise Oxford Dictionary states that the variety of spellings one finds are archaic forms of the more familiar rickshaw, which they define as a:
Light two-wheeled hooded vehicle, drawn by one or more persons.
Wikipedia claims, quite plausibly, that the rickshaw is thought to have been invented in Japan in 1869 after the removal of a ban on wheeled vehicles during the Tokugawa period. After a popularity explosion in that country, it spread quickly to other Asian countries, being introduced to India around 1880.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Kingwell in a rickshaw, Durban, South Africa, c.1920s
Souvenir postcard portrait by unidentified photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Although the popularity of hand-pulled rickshaws waned in the Third World throughout the twentieth century, particularly after the Second World War, there was one country where this mode of transport took on a life of its own. South Africa's first rickshaws were imported into Natal in 1892 and within a decade had become the main mode of transportation, with over 2000 of them in Durban's streets. Gallery Ezakwantu tells a fascinating and well illustrated story of how the rickshaw puller's simple, unadorned calico uniforms and traditional Zulu feathered, bovine-horned headwear have evolved, over time, into outrageous enormous multi-horned headdresses and costumes spectacularly decorated with beads, sheepskins and a variety of other accessories.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

An example of one such Zulu rickshaw puller with his conveyance and a client is pictured in the postcard above, probably taken in a makeshift outdoors studio on Durban's waterfront some time in the 1920s. The scene somewhat clumsily painted on the backdrop is easily identifiable as Durban's sweeping beachfront, with The Bluff forming a backdrop to the harbour entrance, as this Streetview shows. The message handwritten on the back of the postcard merely identifies the occupant of the rickshaw as "Kingwell," presumably a surname. I feel that the uniform he is wearing is possibly merchant marine, or perhaps from a colonial administration, but I haven't been able to pin it down.


"Rickshaw Boys" - Durban, South Africa
Postcard by unidentified publisher, posted 1966

In early 1968 my family had an extended holiday in South Africa, photos in the family albums showing that we spent time in Potchefstroom, Simonstown, Bredasdorp, Durban and Umhlanga Rocks. The only memory of that trip that remains with me is an extremely vivid one of the rickshaw drivers on the Durban waterfront. By that time their costumes, and their playing-up-to-the-tourists antics, were probably at their most extravagant. Unfortunately I don't have a family photograph to go with it, which reinforces my idea that it is a real memory rather than one prompted by later tales of the event related by my parents. In my mind's eye, however, they looked very much like the three posing for this mid-1960s postcard.

An excerpt from a 1967 article in the New Age provides a taste of the experience to be expected:
As pictorial attractions for tourists go probably no city in the world would care to challenge Durban ... at the spin of a 20c piece ... some 15 Zulu ricksha boys, who ply their trade along the sweeping Durban Esplanade between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. ... offer outstanding value. They out-Twiggy Twiggy with the number and variety of their poses ... [take] a swing along the sea shore ... [and] spread their regalia like peacocks.
As a six year-old country boy who had never come across anything like this in my life, I was terrified and absolutely refused to go near it. When one of my parents and my younger sister Diana went off down the Esplanade for a ride, complete with the see-sawing, twirling gyrations and strange chants of the "driver," I was convinced I would never see them again. I suspect tears ensued although time, thankfully, has wiped those from my memory.

Image © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett Payne
Bud Payne, Durban or Umhlanga, 4 April 1968
Photomatic photobooth portrait (65 x 68mm)
Images © and collection of Brett Payne

Although, as far as I am aware, no photograph exists of that particular scary ride, there is a photobooth portrait of my father which could have been taken on the same day. It doesn't have any identifying studio marks or printing on it, but by comparison with similar thin-metal-framed prints from the 1950s which I discussed in a previous article, I can tell it was taken in a Photomatic photobooth. It's possibly the latest example of a Photomatic portrait that I've seen.

Getting back on topic, this series of photos suggests that Durban's rickshaw drivers are still attracting the tourists, although I suspect they're no longer offering rides for twenty cents. I don't think I would fancy expending that amount of effort, even for a considerably greater sum.

References

Japanese Rickshaw, at the Powerhouse Museum.

Zulu Ricksha, 1892-2000, Power Carriages of the Mandlakazi Clan, from Gallery Ezakwantu.

Ricksha Boys of Durban, The Age, 11 September 1967, p.11, courtesy of Google Books.

54 comments:

  1. As always, you take us for a fascinating ride. That first photograph is so wonderfully sharp and clear for such an early photograph. History captured to perfection.

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    1. It is indeed an image of excellent quality, and would have made a nice memento of a visit to India or Ceylon, or wherever it was.

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  2. This week I've learned a new word (I always thought they were just called plain old rickshaws) and I must admit, I rather like it; it has a lovely rhythmic quality to it. I wonder if I can work it into poem! An enjoyable series of pictures too. There used to be a rickshaw driver in Salisbury (UK), I think he was a student trying to earn some extra cash when he started.

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    1. I'll have to admit it was new to me too. At first I thought it might have been the name of a rickshaw operator who went to some length to advertise his business. Bicycle rickshaws are quite common around the world, but people powered ones less so, I think.

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  3. wow, thanks for the history lesson! I tried doing that with the newspaper article found in my momma's things, but to no avail as of yet.

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    1. Thanks Norma. It's amazing how many newspapers are now available online, making an incredibly useful resource for historical research, whereas one used to have to trawl for hours through microfilm at the local library. Keep on searching - you'll get the eventually.

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  4. Interesting. I had no idea that rickshaws were popular in South Africa. I have a couple of acquaintances from there but they never mentioned rickshaws -- but then they were more into beer drinking, me thinks.
    Thanks for a very different "spin," so enjoyably done.

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    1. Joan - As far as I am aware, it is only Durban where the Zulu rickshaw drivers have become almost celebrities in the latter half of the twentieth century. Although other towns/cities may have had them originally, I don't think they developed the character or stood the test of time, so to speak.

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  5. Loved the "Rickshaw Boys" of Durban, South Africa. I'll bet they attract plenty of tourists! Beautiful costumes, but the fellows wearing them must get awfully hot? Like Joan, though, I had no idea rickshaws could be found in South Africa. Nice post.

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    1. Gail - I think I'd fancy a ride now that I understand they're not about to eat me. You must be right about the costumes - it's a very humid climate there too, so extremely uncomfortable, I imagine.

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  6. "Photo-Sleuth" has been included in the Sites To See for this week. Be assured that I hope this helps to point many new visitors in your direction.

    http://asthecrackerheadcrumbles.blogspot.com/2013/08/sites-to-see_9.html

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    1. Thanks for the link Jerry - much appreciated.

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  7. Environmentally friendly they were, your right !
    What a lovely array of pictures I really enjoyed seeing them
    Jackie
    Scrapbangwallop

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    1. Since so many things in Africa are made from recycled bits of plastic, cardboard, tin etc., I imagine even the costumes have a pretty low eco-footprint.

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  8. While the rickshaw as pictured is rare today, lots of touristy cities have adopted bike-powered rickshaw contraptions for tourists. Whether the driver walks or pedals, it looks like an exhausting venture. I bet those 3 drivers in the 1966 photos are really skinny under that sauna-esque costume.

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    1. I've heard the bike-powered ones referred to as tri-shaws.

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  9. Oh, those Rickshaw Boys are really something! I'd be terrified, too, Brett; my parents would have had to DRAG me to them -- night terrors, for sure!

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    1. Odd the things one remembers from one's youth.

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  10. Those costumed rickshaw drivers are fabulous. I love the colorful costumes. Reminds me of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian costumes.
    Wonderful post, as usual.
    Nancy

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    1. Nancy - Now that's one event that I would very much like to see one day.

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  11. Excellent post. I'd never thought about the origin of the word or the contraption.

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    1. Lorraine - I had no idea that it was Japanese in origin, I must say.

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  12. Great photos, but what kind of mileage did a rickshaw driver(?) get on bare feet?

    This summer in our city of hills, a cycle rickshaw taxi service has been introduced. With electric assist, of course.

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    1. Electric assist - it didn't even occur to me that might be an option.

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  13. Interesting history lesson on Rickshaws great old photos too. We went in a rickshaw or maybe it is called something else these days as the person pulling was riding a bike. We were in San Fransisco last year. The boy pulling us was a university student on summer holidays. I have seen them in my city of Brisbane too.

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    1. A somewhat different experience, I think. Yes, I have seen cycle tri-shaws in cities around the world.

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  14. Those costumes they are wearing on the rickshaws in South Africa are extraordinary. At first glance I thought they were Native American in origin.

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    1. Alex - I can see the similarities too.

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  15. No wonder your only memory of that trip is the Zulu rickshaw drivers! How spectacular. Balancing a rickshaw with those costumes and head dresses must have been quite a feat.

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    1. It's difficult enough wearing a fancy dress costume for a single event of a couple of hours, imagine doing so all day, every working day - awful.

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  16. I saw these in Old Quebec City. Operating these were mainly young students making money for their studies. Who else but a young person could manage these on those steep hills in Old Quebec City???

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    1. Rosie - I agree, a young person's trade, and not for long.

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  17. As ever some wonderful images backed up by detailed research and interesting history.

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  18. It would indeed be a terrible occupation.I take it they were only common on flatlands? I'm also surprised how relatively recent their history.Practical but Backbreaking!

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    1. Tony - Well you would think so, wouldn't you, but I've discovered it's not necessarily the case. Check out this amazing silent movie clip of rickshaw rides in the Indian hill station of Mussoorie, where the English sahibs retired to escape the hot months of summer.

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  19. A fine post. A history lesson in detail about something completely foreign to me. And how did you find that duplicate image?

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    1. Anyjazz - I used Google's Image search.

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  20. I was surprised that rickshaws weren't invented earlier. I have seen bicycle rickshaws around here, though they are often called by different names.

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    1. Postcardy - Yes, I was a little surprised too.

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  21. Great post Brett. Thanks for the interesting info on rickshaws. I also had no idea they were so widespread.

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  22. The duplicate photo is on a Sri Lankan blog, judging by the script. I thought that might imply that the photo was taken in Sri Lanka, and found this with its caption "No. 70 Jinrickshaw in Colombo"

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    1. Thanks very much Sheila - good work.

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  23. I'm fascinated by the Durban outfits. They remind me of the "Indian" suits worn by African-Americans in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. And also the suits worn by some of the Mummers in the Philadelphia New Years parade.

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    1. Haven't come across the Philadelphia New Parade - perhaps that's another I need to put on the list of things to see.

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  24. Certainly is a fascinating look at this tidbit of History. Great pics too!! Any idea why it was banned during the Tokugawa period?!
    :)~
    HUGZ

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    1. I think it was part of the general ban on any Western influences entering Japan which prevailed until the end of that period - ion other words they were a very closed society, or at least closed to the Western devils.

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  25. There's the old saying, you learn something every day. Thanks.

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    1. Wouldn't things be tedious if there wasn't something new to learn each day?

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  26. I recall reading the book Shanghai Girls, set after World War II I think, or possibly between WWI and II, and one of the protagonists was a rickshaw driver in Shanghai. It had been a great shame to him. Once in America, the rickshaw was pretty much used in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles as a campy tourist attraction. This is an excellent post as always Brett!

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    1. That sounds an intriguing book. I'll keep a look out for it.

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  27. Like usual, I learnt something new too.

    Always interesting :)

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