Colonialism & Rickshaw Pullers

In Tam Lang’s 1930s I Pulled a Richshaw, the reader journeys through Hanoi through the eyes of Tam Lang, a middle class investigative journalist, when he takes up a position as a rickshaw puller.  The reader is taken on a “rickshaw ride” of Hanoi, learning about the rampent use of opium and the physical and psychological torments of being a rickshaw puller.

At the end, Lang along with the educated middle class realize how terrible the life of a rickshaw puller is and want to modernize rickshaw drivers and introduce western philosophies like equality.  Specifically, Lang thinks that rickshaw drivers should be “pedaling people rather than pulling people” (117) since this would “be able to create a decent life for the coolies” (120).  It’s probably true that pedaling people around rather than running them around is a lot less physically taxing.  Also, it’s clear that rickshaw pullers seem to literally be on a lower level than their customers and that at least with tri-cycles, the driver and the customer would at least both be on the same level.

But it’s unclear whether this really translates to rickshaw pullers being treated more fairly and having a more equitable life.  It seems like the symbolic nature of the tri-cycle driver being on the same level just makes the client feel less awkward.  The same social hierarchy still exists (as seen today) in the rickshaw system and the move hasn’t improved the economic well fair of rickshaw drivers much who are still stuck in the same lousy system.

Three wheelers and tricycles are a much better alternative than rickshaw pullers, but the real question is how to improve the life and conditions of the rickshaw workers so that they are living a happier and better life which the move hardly helps with.  This exemplifies the consistent problem with the government and social movements not asking the right questions and addressing the heart of the problem.

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