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Without rickshaws, Shanghai would be virtually unrecognisable. The streets are positively teeming with them, and are valued as a versatile yet comparatively inexpensive form of transport. Rickshaws were introduced to the city by a French merchant named Menard. He petitioned the council of the French Concession in 1873 for a patent right to run hand-pulled vehicles for ten years, in imitation of the rickshaw businesses he had seen in Japan. The French Concession council turned down his request for the patent, as did the British Settlement, but both concessions agreed to permit the business. Menard registered the first rickshaw company in Shanghai on March 24, 1874, importing rickshaws from Japan for the purpose. By the end of 1874, another 9 companies, all Western-owned, opened, and between them, the ten companies had about 1000 rickshaws in operation.



The term "rickshaw" is derived from the Japanese jinrikisha, meaning "man-power-vehicle". In 1913, the SMC issued an order that all public rickshaws be painted yellow to distinguish them from privately owned rickshaws. After that rickshaws became popularly known as huangbaoche (lit. "yellow private vehicle") in Chinese, and this became the most popular name for the conveyance. And rickshaws became a popular conveyance - by 1914, there were 9,718 public rickshaws in the International Settlement alone.




As a means of public transport, the rickshaw has a lot of advantages. In comparison with the old single-wheel wheelbarrow, which is still in wide use in the outlying areas of the city, especially in Hongkew's factory districts, the rickshaw is comfortable. In the decades since its introduction, technical advances have made the rickshaw even better for travel. Iron-shod wooden wheels have been discarded in favour of pneumatic rubber tyres. Backrests have been added for passengers' comfort, hard seats have been replaced with spring cushions, lights added and so on. Rickshaw fares are within the means of the common people of the city. A ride of a mile or so - the most common distance for which a rickshaw is hired - costs less than 20 cents, about the same amount as the average tip for a taxi driver. The most important feature of the rickshaw, however, is its flexibility. Without too much hassle, the rickshaw may gain access to any corner of the city's numerous winding streets and narrow alleyways, something no motor vehicle can do. The rickshaw is also flexible in the sense that it is available at any time and will stop anywhere the passenger wants, unlike the bus or tram, which have fixed timetables and stops.


Rickshaws are the most common vehicles in the city, the International Settlement accounting for more than any other area. Of the 19,882 rickshaws registered in the Settlement, 9,882 are privately owned. These private rickshaws are sometimes referred to, like public rickshaws, as huangbaoche, though they are usually painted black or red, not yellow. Although public and private rickshaws are the same kind of vehicle, it is pretty easy to tell the difference, even leaving aside the question of colour. Rickshaws for public hire generally look rather shabby and dilapidated, but seldom break down in the street. The nervous newcomer should not be intimidated by the ruinous state of these rickshaws, as though they look as if they should fall to pieces, they somehow never do. In contrast, private rickshaws seem invariably to be shiny and carefully maintained, with a spotless upholstered seat and a wide tarpaulin to protect the passengers from the rain.



Owning a private automobile and employing a driver is a luxury out of the reach of most people, to own a private rickshaw and employ a puller for it is a luxury enjoyed by a great many upper middle class families. More common is for well-off families, both Chinese and Western, to have a favourite public rickshaw puller whom they hire on a regular basis for certain purposes, such as taking children to and from school, shopping and other regular but short trips.



Running a rickshaw business is highly profitable. The daily rent for a rickshaw paid by the puller to the owner is about a thirtieth of the cost of a new rickshaw in its entirety. In this way, after renting out a rickshaw for a month, the owner has recouped his costs and the rest is pure profit. Originally dominated by foreigners, the business is now dominated by the Chinese, though some foreigners remain the officially registered owners. The big companies rent rickshaws directly to Chinese contractors, who then sublet the rickshaws to pullers. The owners are saved the dirty work of having to deal with pullers face to face. The Chinese contractors, known as baotou (subletting heads) are mostly members of gangs or have some other disreputable background.


The rickshaw business has become one of Shanghai's most notorious rackets, especially in the International Settlement. Out of concern over congestion on the roads, the SMC has pursued a policy of limiting the number of rickshaws licences. In particular, the number of public rickshaws licensed in the Settlement has been frozen at 10,000. This limit on the number of licences and other bureaucratic complexities (such as the automatic renewal of licences) has created a complex "licence hierarchy" in the trade. At the top of the hierarchy are the official licence holders, 144 individuals or companies who register 9,900 rickshaws in the Settlement. These licence holders pay a nominal fee of $2 per month to the SMC, but the actual market value of a licence can be as high as $750. Licences are not legally transferable, so many licence holders sell on or rent their licences but remain officially registered owners and receive regular payments from the purchasers. Only about a third of licence holders actually own and manage their registered vehicles. The rest rent out or practically sell their licences. Depending on how many middlemen are involved, the net profit from such a scheme runs between 100 to 300 per cent. By simply renting out the SMC-issued enamel licence, which is kept in the rickshaw, the profit is 100%. The business of running rickshaws in the International Settlement involves multiple layers of licence holders, rickshaw owners, contractors and middlemen, each profiting to varying degrees from the racket.



At the bottom of the pyramid are the thousands of rickshaw pullers. With the average puller supporting a family of four, rickshaws provide a livelihood for a good 10% of the population. Almost all rickshaw pullers come from the countryside, particularly from the Subei area of Jiangsu province, the source of Shanghai's poorest immigrants. With few skills needed, a job pulling a rickshaw is greatly sought after by ex-farmers like these. Few pullers are able to own their own rickshaw, most renting daily from a rickshaw firm. There are always more pullers available than there are rickshaws, sometimes 4 or 5 competing for the same huangbaoche, meaning that the prospect of unemployment is a constant threat. A high proportion of rickshaw pullers are unmarried or have left their families back in the village. The typical pattern of migration to Shanghai consists of the young males of a family coming to the city to test the waters, with the rest of the family following if things go well. Some men are never in a position to bring their families and so remain single throughout their time in the city. This contributes to the city's uneven gender ratio, with about 130 men for every 100 women.



Although factory work is regarded by most as better than pulling a rickshaw, not all rickshaw men agree. Rickshaw pulling does have certain advantages over factory work. Factory jobs involve long hours - usually 12 hours a day or more. A rickshaw puller's hours can be shorter, and are certainly less strict. The night shift is long but can often be shared between two pullers on the same rickshaw. The type of job that an unskilled man can get in a factory pays about the same amount as a rickshaw puller can earn - that is, around $0.40 per day. This means that a puller can earn the same amount as an unskilled factory worker but in less time. Also, by dint of the nature of the job, a rickshaw puller can sometimes get a particularly good day when trade is brisk or a generous passenger pays especially well. On days like these, a rickshaw can double or triple his usual earnings. These opportunities do not exist in a factory. Optimism is a common trait of rickshaw pullers, who believe that through hard work they can be successful. Opium addiction is also common among pullers, who often say they need the drug for the energy required for the job. Cheap low quality opium is always available for sale in many back alleys. It is reckoned that about a quarter of the rickshaw pullers in Shanghai are opium addicts, who typically spend three quarters of their earnings on opium.



One thing that many rickshaw pullers hope for is to be hired as the puller of a private rickshaw. This requires a reliable sponsor to assure the hiring family that the puller is of good character. Once hired, the family provides room and board for the puller plus a monthly wage of between five and seven silver dollars, about the same amount that a shop clerk might be expected to earn. Work clothing, including a raincoat, is provided by the employer, who also pays any traffic tickets. There are currently about 15,000 such private rickshaw pullers in Shanghai. Many of them are able to eventually buy their own rickshaw or even a whole rickshaw firm.



One of the best-known ways for rickshaw pullers to go from rags to riches is to pull a so-called "pheasant rickshaw". These are rickshaws registered as private but actually hired out to the public. In a year or so, a canny puller might be able to save up about 40 dollars to purchase a used rickshaw that he can register as a private vehicle (often under a false name). To avoid being caught by the police, these rickshaw men are most often found in areas where business offices or clubs are located. That way, they can pretend they are private pullers of wealthy businessmen, awaiting their employers' return. Whereas the police tend to check up carefully on public rickshaws, they pay little attention to private rickshaws. Thus, pheasant rickshaws may be useful for Investigators trying to get about town without any official entanglements.



The typical rickshaw journey is quite short, due to the layout of the city and because the existence of buses and trams means that rickshaws are mostly used to get to places that are not easily accessible to motor vehicles. Due to the physical construction of Shanghai, many destinations are in small streets or alleyways. From the Bund to the end of Bubbling Well Road is barely three miles, and most rickshaw journeys are less than that. The divided administration of the city makes long-distance trips impossible for many rickshaw men. There are three types of licence for public rickshaws in Shanghai. The first type is obtained from the International Settlement, and availability is limited to a total of 8,000. Those who have an SMC licence are eligible to obtain (for an extra fee) licences for the French Concession and the Chinese districts. Pullers refer to these as "big licences". The second type, known as "small licences", permit the rickshaw to work in both the French Concession and the Chinese areas but not the International Settlement. There are 2000 of these rickshaws. The third type is valid only in areas administered by the Chinese, and these licences are valid either in Zhabei or Nanshi only. There are over 2,000 of these. For this reason, most rickshaws only operate in one or two areas. If the passenger's destination is in another area, he must get out of the rickshaw at the boundary and find another rickshaw with the correct licence.

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