The Rickshaw Coolie
I weep for our forebears who came here with big dreams; for most, it was not a matter of choice but of necessity. Forced to starve either as tenant farmers callously exploited by land owners in their impoverished homeland or risk their their lives in an alien land, they took that great leap into the unknown. Being destitute and barely knowing their own written language but possessed of fierce ambition and an iron will, they came, some with only the clothes on their backs to try to earn a decent living so that they could return home in some comfort. Many did not make it of course, succumbing to the harsh conditions of eking out a living.
One special breed of people who seemed to toil against all odds was the rickshaw coolies. The recruiting agencies, invariably controlled by secret societies whose financiers were the rich 'Nanyang' Chinese capitalists, made huge profits from importing coolies, by providing them sea passage to 'Nanyang' after which the coolies would have to work for years to pay off the cost of the ticket. This modus operandi was repeated in the tin mines and farms in both the Straits Settlements as well as the Malay states that came under British control. James Warren's account of the procurement and control of rickshaw coolies in Singapore is probably reflective of the situation in the Malay states.
Hoping to own their own rickshaws one day, the newly arrived coolies hired rickshaws from either individual owners or 'syndicates' to ply the streets to pay off their passage leaving barely enough to satisfy their basic daily needs. Many of course would never be able to own one as the licences to operate a rickshaw were controlled by 'syndicates' with connections to the colonial government and rickshaws too expensive for an indentured labourer to save up to buy. Many succumbed to the lure of 'da yen' or 'great smoke'(opium) to alleviate their suffering. Those strong and experienced worked the day shift, when there were more customers while those who were inexperienced or on opium worked the night shift to avoid the intense heat of the day. However, a strong rickshaw coolie could make much more than other coolies, averaging 1.70 to 2.00 dollars a day gross in comparison with a coolie who worked in the dockyards (50 cents) or a labourer in tine mines (70 cents). Not every coolie could pull a rickshaw; he had to belong to either the Cantonese clan or the Foochow clan which controlled the business in Singapore.
In the early days of colonial rule, the control and regulation of the life of the 'inscrutable' Chinese migrants were left very much to the 'respectable' Chinese capitalists who, apart from being the either the heads of secret societies or their financiers controlled every business dealing with the migrants.
It is always the same story; the rich would always exploit the ignorant and the poor, whether in the past or in modern times.
For an insight into the rickshaw coolies, James Warren's "Rickshaw Coolie: a People History of Singapore 1880-1940" provides an excellent account.