The word rickshaw conjures up scenes from the British Raj of English government officials and their ladies being taxied about by two-wheeled carriages pulled by wiry runners.However, the vehicle is thought to have its origins in France.
In 18th century France there was a two-wheeled sedan chair called a brouette, which was pulled along by a man. This is thought to have been the forerunner of the jinrikisha (jin meaning ‘man’; riki meaning ‘power or strength’ and sha meaning ‘carriage or vehicle’) that appeared in Japan in the late 19th century.
Rickshaws became widespread as a means of transport and employment throughout East Asia. The runner held onto the vehicle by two shafts, one held in each hand and would travel up to 50km a day in all weather. The passengers were protected from the burning sun or rain by a hood, which could be pulled over the top of the carriage.
Rickshaws were eventually declared illegal in China as using men as ‘human horse-power’ was considered degrading.
Three-wheeled, pedalled and motorised vehicles have largely replaced the more traditional rickshaw.
Rickshaws pulled by runners are still found throughout Asia, but are mainly there as a tourist attraction. In Hong Kong no rickshaw licences have been granted since 1975 and the rickshaws will eventually disappear.
Rickshaws have different names throughout Asia, including ricksha, trishaw, autorickshaw, pedicab, cyclo and becak.