Fiction – “The Last Rickshaw” by Stephanie Lai
Yu drops his passenger off at McCallum Dua and slips the ringgit into his pocket. It’s late, and this far out he’s not sure he can get another fare, and he thinks about going home. It starts to drizzle, and that decides him; he hates riding in the rain. He crosses the road and swerves to avoid a woman who suddenly appears out of the darkness.
Well, one last fare, he decides, pulling over. She clambers onto the rickshaw, coughing as she breathes in the smoke, doing battle with the pipes as she climbs up over the front wheel. She uses one as a step into the seat; ducks beneath another. He worries her headscarf is going to catch in the pipes. He really should tie them together, but she manages okay. “KOMTAR,” she says, and he thinks it odd that she’s not bothering to barter, but he doesn’t question it, just fiddles with the buttons and heads towards the tower in the distance.
Overhead, the airships float lazily by, and the hooks fly across the sky to wrap around the poles protruding from the KOMTAR.
“The airships are flying low tonight,” she says, once, and he hums his agreement. He’s not much of a talker.
She jumps off in front of the KOMTAR, and she hands over a note so large it’s twice the fare. He fumbles for the change, but she waves him off.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “You’re going to need it.” He’d ask her what she means, but she’s gone, coughing as she pushes open the door to the ground floor.
He heads home, the black smoke billowing out from behind his rickshaw.
Yu leans against his rickshaw, blinks into the morning sun. The light is bright against his eyes. Lim Mei Hua passes him a bowl of soupy ayam mee, and he grins at her as he starts slurping away. “Good to be early,” he says, and she nods.
“Noodles are freshest in the morning,” she says, waving away his attempts to pay. He wonders why, until he glances down at the paper some businessman left behind, squints to read the text: RICKSHAWS TO GO ANNOUNCES DATUK RAHMAN, and his heart drops.
He catches his bowl. At least his reflexes are quick, though his old heart can no longer take the shock.
Samuel O Lee (“The angmoh love it,” he’d said as he signed the paperwork) wanders in for his laksa, and Yu waves the paper at him. With every line he reads he becomes more angry, feels more helpless; the rickshaws are just fine for the environment, better than these giant airships obscuring the sun, better than the single occupant bikes clogging up the roads. And they’re good for the economy. Good for his economy, at any rate.
Samuel O Lee frowns. “These government types,” he says. “Bribes from big business, you know.”
“Is it?” Samuel O Lee nods, but Yu isn’t convinced.
Why would anyone want to get rid of rickshaws? If you get rid of rickshaws, there’s no way to get from home and out and back again. Makes no sense.
Outside the KOMTAR he rides his rickshaw past the advertising screen. The silk sways in the wind; at day the advert is static, but when the sun goes down the projector fires up and the advertising comes to life. For now the Rapid Transport Carrier is still and bright against the grubby KOMTAR walls, cheerfully pointing towards Tanjong Bungah. THE FUTURE IS HERE, it calls, and Yu doesn’t need to wait for night; when he closes his eyes, he sees the trolley buses trundling their way up the hill, no rickshaws in sight.
From behind him, a bell rings, and when he opens his eyes, the countdown mechanique’s tone is higher pitched: it’s about to reach zero.
He winds the handle, and the pipes come to life. Beneath his legs he can feel the vibration of the rickshaw as the chemicals mix together and the fumes rise through the body. The rickshaw takes off, and behind him, Yu hears the pedestrians coughing.
Yu doesn’t bother looking for customers; he looks for rickshaw drivers instead. There’s a rickshaw stand opposite the KOMTAR, and he rides in. “Hey,” someone yells, “this isn’t your spot!” Yu ignores that guy; it sounds like Pang, who’s always grumpy, and has never had a good word for Yu, never once in forty years, not even when he got married, not even when his wife died. Besides, rickshaw drivers are far too territorial for their own good. He brings his rickshaw to a halt, and the rickshaw belches. There must be something caught inside the pipes, but he doesn’t stop to check.
“Soon this won’t be anyone’s spot!” He waves the newspaper, and the drivers look disinterestedly over.
“I wonder if I could be a trolley driver,” says one.
“Eh, there’s nothing to be done lah,” says another.
“Don’t make too much fuss,” says a third. “You know there’s nothing you can change. These young people, they are moving us on.” There’s nodding in the crowd, from those who can be bothered to move. It is always the same.
“Yu, why you always make such a fuss when nothing you can do?”
“What are you going to do then aah?” Yu asks. “Just sit here and take?”
They keep shaking their heads. “Maybe I’ll join my wife on the roti stand,” someone says, and Yu frowns.
That’s not enough for him. He’s not sure what’s up, but he needs to find out.
The new Rapid Transport Carrier is set to be unveiled on the eighth. It was underneath the front page story of RICKSHAWS CAUSE DEATH UP PENANG HILL and the photo of a phalanx of rickshaws obscured by their smoke.
An errant pipe lies on the road at his feet, and he picks it up.
His rickshaw is not so poorly made as that, even though it’s not the top of the line.
He stops getting single fares; it’s all pairs and trios and sometimes four people will want to clamber in, which is hard on his pipes and the machine grumbles beneath his hand and the umbrella is never quite big enough.
He winds faster.
The passengers look at him suspiciously; hurry away as soon as they can, talking about new things, clean things, words Yu doesn’t understand. “Everything is okay,” he calls after them, but it’s not.
At least, it’s not for the rickshaw drivers, and it’s not for Yu.
The eighth rolls around, and Yu worms his way in to the unveiling of the Rapid Transport Carrier. No one else wants to come, so he sneaks in alone. It’s glorious. Bright white with a long red stripe, the giant trolley bus is modified to appeal to everyone, and designed to travel up and down the hilly roads winding around the island. There are no pipes, just electricity generated from the base of the hill through to the top, never you mind the jungle around the back past Tanjong Bungah.
Yu thinks it looks sleek and streamlined before he catches himself; reminds himself that the Rapid Transport Carrier is the competition, and it’s not for him to admire. He wonders how the boilers work, when they’re not right under your feet. What happens when something goes wrong?
Datuk Rahman steps forward, and in the bright sunlight she looks familiar.
“We will keep our skies free of pollution, so the air ships can fly freer,” she calls. “The RTC will connect directly with KOMTAR, creating a transport hub. And the airships will fly high, keeping Penang connected to the mainland, keeping us a central, important part of the peninsula as we move forward.”
She looks directly at him, like she recognises him, and in amongst the knowledgeable chatter of the young people and the curiosity of the old wives, Yu shrinks behind a short monk. He recognises her, and he knows, oh, he knows. This is the moment when traditions change on the island, when the old must make way for the new.
There is no room for the rickshaws here, they are clogging up the streets.
Yu slips out the back. Surely there must be something he can do. He will not be driven out so easily.
He tries to look for customers, but there are none to be found. Passengers have been declining of late, but the trolley car is still not a real thing, still only a promise – they need to get around still!
In a wet market, he accosts a regular. “Hey, you no want rickshaw today!” he asks, dropping into the familiar slang. The tai tai shakes her head.
“No lah!” she replies, shakes her head. “My daughter’s girlfriend’s father’s brother got hit by one, you know!”
“Accidents happen!” Yu protests. A crowd gathers.
“I heard more rickshaw use means more home break ins. Easy to carry evidence of crime!” There is a nodding of heads from the crowd.
“I read it in the paper even! Paper don’t lie!”
“What, you think we rickshaw drivers not smart, is it?” Yu interjects. “That we don’t know stolen goods when we see them?”
An old lady leans over. “Maybe rickshaw drivers are doing the stealing,” she says, and Yu is shocked. He wishes he knew where they were getting their ideas.
The crowd starts to get angry, and Yu escapes, tries asking elsewhere. “Bad for the environment,” he hears, “all that black smoke and all those pipes and buttons. No good for our air.”
So many different reasons, so many different places. Yu wonders what’s going on. It can’t just be a coincidence that this is all at once.
The Datuk visits some of the drivers at the rickshaw stands. Yu is waiting for passengers when she arrives. A young woman, a pedestrian, walks past and yells. Yu leans forward, excited; are there some young people who recognise this injustice to their elders, to their uncles? The woman shakes the Datuk’s hand excitedly. “So happy to meet you!” he hears, and, “You are such an inspiration!” and “I want to study overseas also.”
The Datuk smiles, and she is so cheerful even with the rickshaw drivers behind her. She must know they can hear her as she talks about the future, this future that does not include them. “So long as you come home,” she says to the young woman. “Your country needs you to propel it forward.”
Yu shakes his head at this lack of concern. Young people. Ai-yah.
He protests, but what can he do? He is only one man, and his friends have all gone to find new jobs. He wonders how they have found them, when they have been rickshaw drivers so long. He polishes his rickshaw, cleans it as well as he can, but it doesn’t help; still the black smoke pours out, and still the people he passes stare.
He sits at the hawker stall, eats his noodles, worries about his rickshaw.
When he comes out, there is a man standing by the rickshaw. “You want a ride?” Yu asks – perhaps there is hope yet for the young Malaysians! The man tilts his head.
“You haven’t handed in your rickshaw,” the man says.
“I still need it,” Yu protests.
“Ah, Uncle,” says the man, all friendly-like, but Yu knows a fake when he meets one. “Uncle, there is no room for rickshaws in our glorious new Malaysia. You must welcome the future! We welcome you!”
Yu shakes his head. The man grins, and his gold tooth glints in the sunlight.
“Ah, Uncle,” he says. “Take our offer, before it is too late.”
The sun sets and, eventually, the city is quiet. Yu rides to the RTC headquarters, looks at the trolley cars sitting there. He jumps the fence, and squats in front of one of them. He knows nothing of electricity, but he knows pipes, and he watches where the electricity runs before he leans forward and cuts one. He moves on to the next one, and the next one, until he has touched the whole fleet.
Close by, he hears a voice, and he rolls under a trolley bus, watches as feet walk steadily through the lot. As he lies there, he imagines the morning, when those young trolley drivers climb into their buses and as one, the buses fail, rendering them useless, nothing but expensive pieces of junk, and nothing to do but take the rickshaws out for a ride.
After a while, he is sure he is alone, and he climbs out. His old knees crack as he stands and looks around. His rickshaw is gone.
He is alone, without even his rickshaw to support him.
He walks slowly home. It takes a while, and he passes no one on the way.
Eventually, it starts to rain, and for just a moment he misses the umbrella more than the rickshaw. It’s only for a moment, though; then he remembers why he’s walking, and he keeps trudging down the hill, tries not to think about what he’s going to do now that he’s got nothing left.
He trips as he jumps over the storm drains; and 50 sen drops out of his pocket.
In the morning, the paper reads, LAST CHANCE FOR RICKSHAWS: time to clear out streets and skies, and Yu frowns down at the words, knows that they are a message for him. He wonders if he can find the Datuk, tell her of this future she has brought to him.
No trolley cars trundle past, and no rickshaws, and Yu wonders where they are, hopes that his plan has worked. He walks to the wet market for groceries; counts his sen carefully out because he’s got to be careful, now that he’s got nothing to spare. He lugs the bags home.
Later, after dinner, the first trolley car trundles past. Yu looks at the thirty people all squashed inside, and watches the sparks overhead as it travels down the street.
He holds a pipe in his hand; he uses it to hit the table and leaves a dent.
He drops the pipe.
Late at night, he looks up, and Datuk Rahman’s face smiles down at him as she pats the side of a trolley bus where its RTC logo is sits. THE FUTURE OF MALAYSIA IS HERE scrolls across the bottom of the advertisement, and behind him, someone laughs.
The rickshaws pile up in the jungle behind Air Hitam. Yu visits, sometimes; comes away with an arm full of pipes, carries them home on the RTC. As the RTC travels through town, he sees old men sitting in the makanan, sitting around reading papers when they should be out driving rickshaws. He wonders how they are faring, but he doesn’t care to ask, and the RTC goes by without stopping.
In the main room of his apartment, a new rickshaw slowly takes shape.
Maybe he can’t ride his old rickshaw anymore, but if there’s room for a big RTC then there’s room for something smaller. Yu doesn’t know a lot, and he doesn’t have a lot, but he has plans, and he takes his inspiration from the airships floating over Pulau Pinang.
Outside, it starts to rain, and the airships keep flying.
About the Author
Stephanie Lai grew up reading science fiction and fantasy; moving in to sustainability and environmental issues as a day job seemed a natural offshoot of reading a hundred dystopian novels. She currently lives in Australia, and dreams of thwarting such apocalyptic futures. She likes food. A lot. You can find her rambling in short paragraphs on her tumbler at http://yiduiqie.tumblr.com/.