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The cycle-taxis of Syonan

On a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia to attend the Society for the History of Technology’s first meeting in Asia, I came across a curious example of local technology, the trishaw. At first glance, trishaws looked like cycle rickshaws, common in India, but on closer inspection they turned out to be an ordinary bicycle with a sidecar clamped to one side.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

The trishaws I saw were not regular taxis. Instead, like the pedicabs of New York City, they offered joy rides to tourists. In Singapore, I only saw a few forlorn trishaws parked opposite the Raffles Hotel, but in Malacca (Melaka) there were flocks of them congregating around the historic Dutch Square. The Singaporean trishaws were mostly unornamented, but the Malaccan ones were decked out elaborately. Most of the decorations featured children’s movie or TV characters, such as Doraemon, Minions, or the main characters of Frozen.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

The history of trishaws in Southeast Asia began more than seventy years ago. According to C.M. Turnbull’s History of Singapore (Oxford, 1977), trishaws originated in World War II during the Japanese occupation of Syonan (“Light of the South,” the name given to Singapore by the Japanese). Singapore, an island state with few natural resources, had long been economically oriented toward the west. The Japanese occupation cut off Singapore’s western trade links, leading to severe resource shortages. Some enterprising Singaporeans found ways to create domestic import substitutes, such as banana-fiber ropes and bamboo paper. Trishaws were another such improvisation. Not only could they be readily adapted from existing bicycles, they also did not consume any gasoline, another scarce wartime commodity. After the end of the war, Singapore’s economy recovered, but trishaws continued to be used into the 1970s. More recently, they have made a comeback for tourists.

Riding the meter-gauge rails

Broad-gauge (left) and meter-gauge (right) trains at Jaipur Junction.

Broad-gauge (left) and meter-gauge (right) trains at Jaipur Junction.

When private British capital first started building railroads in India in the mid-nineteenth century, the lines were built in broad gauge. With a spacing between the rails of 5 ft 6 in, this was, and still is, the widest rail gauge in common use anywhere in the world. The colonial Government of India started to build their own rail lines in the 1870s. These public-sector railways were more cheaply built than their private counterparts, and they were made in meter gauge (3 ft 3 3/8 in).

Even after independence and the nationalization of the private railways, broad-gauge and meter-gauge lines continued to be developed in parallel with each other. Only in the 1990s did the Indian Railways start to convert meter-gauge lines to broad gauge, under Project Unigauge. Since then, large stretches of meter-gauge lines have been replaced by broad gauge.

Meter-gauge lines survive here and there. One such line runs between Jaipur Junction and Sikar, 107 km (66 mi) to the northwest. Meter gauge used to run all of the way to Churu, another fifty miles to the north, but that stretch has recently been closed for conversion to broad gauge. (The time table posted in Jaipur Junction station still says Churu on it, although the name has been whited out and replaced with Sikar.) Someday the Jaipur–Sikar line will also become broad gauge. But in the meantime, seven meter-gauge trains will continue to run back and forth between Jaipur and Sikar every day.

Since meter gauge won’t be around forever, I felt obliged to ride the Jaipur–Sikar train when I had the chance. A month ago, I rode one of these trains from Jaipur as far as Chomun, one-third of the way to Sikar. The meter-gauge tracks at Jaipur Junction station are on the north side of the broad-gauge lines, so the tracks don’t have to cross each other. I found a place where both gauges run side-by-side, showing the difference in size.

Comparison of meter gauge (left) and broad gauge (right).

Comparison of meter gauge (left) and broad gauge (right).

The meter-gauge train was smaller and, I dare say, cuter than the broad-gauge trains I am used to seeing. Inside, the coach was just wide enough for a bench seating four or five adults.

Meter-gauge locomotive of 52083 Jaipur-Sikar MG Pass train.

Meter-gauge locomotive of 52083 Jaipur-Sikar MG Pass train.

Meter-gauge luggage car.

Meter-gauge luggage car.

Panorama of a compartment in a meter-gauge train.

Panorama of a compartment in a meter-gauge train.

I sat in the coach just behind the diesel-electric locomotive, because that one was farthest along the platform and nobody else was in it at first. When the train left Jaipur station, only two other men were in my compartment. At the first stop, Dher ka Balaji, the compartment filled up. The train passed by Jaipur’s sprawl for a while, then it reached the open countryside. After several station stops that I didn’t see the name of, the train pulled into Chomun station, a nice little colonial Public Works Department structure.

The single platform of Chomun Samod station.

The single platform of Chomun Samod station.

Glimpse of the facade of Chomun Samod station.

Glimpse of the facade of Chomun Samod station.

At Chomun, my meter-gauge technological tourism came to an end. I returned to Jaipur by city bus.

Having ridden on a meter-gauge train, I can now appreciate how much the Indian Railways have changed since the days when the narrower gauge was more prevalent. The train I rode to Chomun just didn’t have the capacity of the much larger broad-gauge trains I have ridden in India.

Learning about Mexico

Why do we travel? I know that people travel for diverse reasons. For my part, I travel to learn. If I want to learn about some part of the world, I find that there is no substitute for actually going there in person, walking around, talking with people (if I can), making notes, and taking pictures.

But I can only learn so much from travel. To get deeper knowledge, I need to read books written by people who are more experienced and knowledgeable than me. Travel and reading go hand-in-hand. My travel experiences make me pay more attention to parts of the books I read, and often my reading makes me want to go back to a place to pay more attention to something I had missed before.

Here is an example of how reading can help me better understand a place I have visited. I have been reading Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, by Alan Riding (1983, revised edition published in 1986). This was a lucky used bookstore find. Riding is a British journalist, but he wrote the book for an American audience. In the introduction, he argues that Americans hardly understand Mexico at all, and we need to understand the country better. This is why he wrote the book.

I agree that Americans really don’t try to understand our southern neighbor. Apart from the drug wars near the US border, Mexico does not appear in American news very much. When we teach world history at the college level, Mexico has its fifteen minutes of fame during the Aztec conquest. Then it disappears.

My knowledge of post-1521 Mexico is therefore almost a complete blank, and so I have had plenty to learn from Distant Neighbors.

According to the book, the man who really created modern Mexico was Miguel Alemán, who served as president of the country from 1946 to 1952. Alemán opened the country to large-scale foreign investment. This was when American companies like Ford and Coca-Cola entered Mexico. Thanks in large part to American investment, the Mexican middle class grew rapidly during Alemán’s presidency and afterward.

Alemán also invested in big irrigation projects to promote agriculture in Sonora and Sinaloa. These two states are in arid northwestern Mexico. Sonora is just across the international border from Arizona; Sinaloa is the next state south of Sonora. Alemán wanted farms in northwestern Mexico to grow crops on a large scale, with irrigation and fertilizers, like farms in the USA. Most of the agriculture in these two states is organized in large farms, either privately-held latifundios, or sometimes a collective of small holdings known as ejidos granted to the Yaqui and Mayo people in government land-reform programs.

American-style agriculture outside of Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, northern Mexico.

American-style agriculture outside of Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, northern Mexico.

A couple of years ago, I visited the town of Ciudad Obregón in Sonora. (See “An Audience with Dr. Borlaug” for more information about Obregón.) I saw the large-scale agriculture, but I didn’t know why or when the countryside was developed in that way. I also didn’t know why the main street in Obregón is named Calle Miguel Alemán. (“Calle” means “street.”) Now, thanks to Alan Riding’s book, I do.

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