When trishaws were taxis

Devotees riding in trishaws to follow Chingay parade
along Jalan Ngee Heng, 1968
Over a recent family dinner, my brother and I reminisced about some of the food that grandma used to cook for us when we lived with our grandparents.  One of her most delectable dishes, designed to encourage us to eat was steamed minced meat where meat was chopped into a fine mince so that not much chewing was required. 

It was usually eaten with steaming hot rice and grandma would say that we should have no difficulty in swallowing but it would even tah kwan tau [Cantonese] or somersault into our stomachs!

Grandma was the housekeeper as well as chief cook who kept the house ship-shape and fed nutritious and tasty meals to the whole family.  At that time, several uncles and aunts were still single and living with us at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng.  Grandma used to run a tight ship and the children also had a share in the household chores both indoors and outdoors, with daily, weekly and monthly tasks assigned.  One of our weekend chores was to help grandma to pluck a variety of vegetables including taugeh or bean-sprouts and peel piles of prawns after she returned from her weekly trip to the wet market. 

Sometimes grandma would take either me or my brother and cousin along and for me, this market excursion was always an exciting and colourful adventure.  With one hand firmly holding mine and the other grasping two empty rattan baskets, we would take a walk from Jalan Ngee Heng to the central market that once occupied the spot where Johor Bahru City Square now stands.  I can vividly recall the sights, sounds and smells in that wet market as I gingerly picked my way along the damp, pitted paths lined by fresh food stalls. 

Grandma had a regular vegetable stall where she would buy most of her fresh vegetables and I can never forget that awful stall-holder who had such a kick out of teasing me.  Even as a kid, I knew that he was politically incorrect to use such words because his nickname for me was keling mui, or Indian girl!

On the plus side, I had the opportunity to explore the market as I tagged along with grandma to stalls that sold meat, poultry and dried provisions.  As grandma picked out the preserved products she needed, I used to eye the mouth-watering pickled fruits and the kind stall-holder often offered me a piece or two of my favourite pickled leek bulbs.  This was all fun for me but shopping was serious business for grandma who had to plan meals for the family throughout the week.  And each time she bought something, she would bring it to that vegetable stall where it was stored until we were ready to leave.

Trishaw with side
carriage in Johor Baru, 1968
One of the highlights of my market trips was that ride home on a beca or trishaw.  The trishaw riders also provided porter services and regulars who knew grandma would help to carry the stuffed baskets and any extra carrier bags from the stall.  In those days, grandma was so broad that she could occupy the whole seat so the baskets and bags were arranged on the carriage floor, close to where her feet should rest.  And I would squat next to her feet and the goods with my hands firmly holding onto the chrome handrail.

Unlike the trishaws in Penang where the passenger carriage was in front of the rider, the trishaws in Johor Baru had a side carriage attached to the tricycle.  So as I was squatting up front, I had a full view of the rider on my side.  It was quite a distance from Jalan Wong Ah Fook back to Jalan Ngee Heng so I used to enjoy every moment being buffeted by the wind as the trishaw creaked and gently swayed on its way.  From time to time, I would peek at the rider as he pedaled, keeping to the road sides and skillfully avoiding any danger. 

Peggy in a trishaw with
front carriage in Penang
The rider usually wore a broad brimmed hat and a Good Morning towel around his neck to absorb perspiration and I used to watch, fascinated as beads of sweat almost seemed to pop up on his sun-tanned, sinewy limbs.  My brother and I agree that what’s indelibly etched in our memories must be the sight of those horrible varicose veins on the rider’s powerful legs.  We did not know what they were then but the bulging veins sure caught our curious attention.  

There was a slight incline at the approach to the back gates of our house and the rider would usually get off to push his heavy tricycle that was loaded with the weight of our baskets, grandma and me!

I always felt sad when I saw the beca man exert himself physically to take us home and then help unload the baskets and carry them inside.  Trishaws certainly provided a very convenient taxi service to people who needed to move around town because at that time, there was not much choice in public transport.  

They were the most inexpensive mode of transport and I even saw some students ferried to and from school by a trusted trishaw man.  While trishaws in Malacca, Penang and Singapore are mainly for tourists and may even be revived for tourists in Kota Baru, the traditional beca no longer exist on our busy Johor Baru streets today.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 4 March 2011


  1. Hi Peggy,

    I like your trishaw photos. Do you mind if I share your photos in Facebook's Trishaw > 三轮车 group?

    Hv a nice day~~~wchoong

  2. I can't read Chinese but can recognise the first character as "three" so a good guess means that the Chinese characters are for "Three-Wheel-Vehicle" group! Please feel free to use the photos but kindly give photo credit to "Peggy Loh - My Johor Stories". You have a nice day too!