A Trishaw named 'Hope'


 
"Lancha!" I hear. I look back. "Sorry?" I ask.
"Becha?" He now says with squinting eyes. Again I ask "Sorry?"
"Trishaw!!" He now says with a grin. Glad to have finally realised I am not a local. 
I'm in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, and being spoken to in the local dialects is something I'm becoming used to, thanks to my mixed background. This elderly Hokkien gentleman is offering me a ride on his Trishaw for a few Ringgit. Ringgit is the local currency. If you're unfamiliar with Trishaws, it's basically a big Tricycle where you have a carriage in between both front over-sized wheels. Your driver pedaling behind you on the back one. A mode of transport as old as Georgetown itself (now mainly used to carry around tourists through the charming UNESCO heritage area). With the sun beating down heavily I happily agree to the Trishaw.  Before we head out he suggests one thing though. "Careful how you step on." he says, "If you too fat you tip Trishaw over." I carefully tread towards the centre, away from the front end, just in case I am. Wondering If I had just been judged.
"I take you Chulia St and Armenia St. See Street Art. Many tourists like." He says in his best English.
"OK, I'm in. Let's go." I reply

 
After a few hundred metres we turn left into Chulia st, a very active street with many cafes nestled in and between gorgeous pre WW2 housing. Sitting in a Trishaw you are tilted slightly skyward. As a result, the nuances of the structural scenery rolling by are brought into a sharp focus. A different angle providing a different perspective. After highlighting some of the hotels along the way my rider then excitedly points out "Love Lane" to the left. "Love Lane" is now a backpacker favourite for it's various clever funky bars. He explains however the actual origin of it's name. A lane back in the day where young couples used to meet, and whisper all things romantic. "Ahh" he grins. "Old times were good!" I get the feeling he may have been here before, and not as a tourist guide.
   After taking in all the charm of Chulia st we turn right, heading towards Armenia St. I ask my rider, the "Uncle", how long he has been doing this. He tells me that he has been doing it for 20 years. He becomes distracted as we turn left into the top of Armenia St.
"Look!" he says, "Street Art!".
 Street art has becoming a defining feature of Georgetown. The abundance and quality of these street paintings, which are on the housings and walls sidelining the streets, is quite impressive. There are many throughout Georgetown, however it is here in Armenia St and its surrounds where the majority are located. I start snapping happily with my phone. There are so many clever and interesting paintings that I don't have time to mention all of them, or their history, here on this blog. There are quite a number of books on them in the adjacent stalls. I make a mental note to purchase them later on.

 After a few hundred metres, and many pics, we reach the most iconic of all of Penang's street art. The one on all the souvenir T-shirts and bags. "The Kids on a bike" (That's my official name for it, and I'm going to stick to it!). It basically is just 2 kids on a bike. A young girl, and her younger brother excitedly holding on from behind. Going somewhere. It's obvious they don't care where. It only matters that they are on a bike. An experience I can relate to well. This is the charm behind it's popularity. A universal story that is a nostalgic call to simpler times.
 
I decide to stop for a picture. I alight carefully, remembering the "Uncle's" not so subtle advice. After waiting my turn behind the many tourists in their novelty straw hats, I ask Uncle to take a pic of me (In my novelty straw hat). He obliges, and it is a well taken photo. He has done this many times. We head back.
   On the return trip we head via some back lanes. I ask him if he gets much business. He replies that lately not so. The proliferation of personal bike rentals in Georgetown has really taken a big cut out of their income. Backpackers are also not that quick to part with funds from their shoestring budget, preferring to walk around I suspect.
Travelling back we push up on a slight incline. Surprised with the strength at his advanced age (I estimate 70), I ask if he enjoys taking tourists around in the hot sun for some Ringgits. He replies that he does, but the major reason he does it is because he has to. I ask how so. He takes a deep breath, and it's not to cycle faster.
"Pension is not enough" He says "And not everyone is lucky enough to have children that take care of them in old age." As he cycles slower up the gradient, he continues to speak. He used to be a painter, and his wife has passed away a number of years ago. He is not educated, and both his children who are Engineers in Kuala Lumpur don't keep in contact with him. The loneliness during the recent Chinese New Year was particularly hard.
 

 My rider pays 3 Ringgit rental daily for the tricycle. He rents two. One to keep his minimal belongings in and this one. To work and to sleep. Like all Trishaw riders this is his home. A home for the homeless. He finds solace within the sizable community of Trishaw riders in Georgetown. Colleagues he spends most of his days with. All in the same situation. Fighting their loneliness one ride at a time. Using their will and remaining strength to give value to their latter years.
We reach the "Depot", so to speak, of Trishaws. It is just outside the Catholic Church on Penang Rd. The majority of the "Uncles" are stationed here. This is where they pitch their services to passing tourists. This is where they commune. This is where they assuage their desire to belong. And this desire, I realise, is an urge familiar to all of us.
 As I step off he tells me it's "40 ringgit". I cheekily suggest that his high prices are the reason for his loss of business. He protests, and proceeds to point out all the sights and local knowledge he has just imparted. I laugh and think to myself "Yep, you gave me that and much more 'Uncle'". I duly pay. Before I leave I ask him if he has a name for his Trishaw. He says yes and that its name is 'Hope'. I said nice name. He adds "Yes, I hope my family comes back, and I can stop doing this." I reflect on this reply for a moment. It's a tough one to digest.

 Some of the other "Uncles" call him over. Somebody was gracious enough to donate Nasi Kandar, and as the true family that they have now become, they want to share it with each other. As I walk away I know that I have received something more valuable than a just a ride, and some unwarranted advice on how to step on a Trishaw. I received a trip through local history, and a window into the history of a local. A short ride that will stay long in the memory I'm sure.
 
Jeffrey Andres is Founder and Managing Director of Lynn Andres Scarf Penang. A Malaysian boutique Scarf label based in Penang, Malaysia. After carving out a niche online over the last year, both in Malaysia and internationally, Lynn Andres will open their first flagship store in Georgetown, Penang, in April 2017.
www.lynnandres.com