White Guys Pulling Rickshaws: An Abbreviated History

Six years ago, while doing research for my slang book, I read a great non-fiction book called “Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City” by Stella Dong. One passage described American sailors goofing around by switching places with rickshaw drivers and running around yelling “Yahoo!” That image really stayed with me because it seemed like such an American thing to do. It’s easy to picture Americans in China still doing this today. As one Beijing cab driver proclaimed when I told him I was American, “Ah – Americans like to joke around!”

Ever since then, I keep noticing mentions of white folk pulling rickshaws. I don’t really have much to say about it; it’s just something I notice and find interesting. So here for no reason are three instances I’ve come across of white guys pulling rickshaws:

1. Sometime before 1925

Rickshaw_Harry_FranckThis is a page from “Roving through Southern China” by Harry A. Franck, an early 20th century travel writer. I’m not sure when exactly the photos were taken but the book is published in 1925. A copy of this book used to live in my hall closet, along with a zillion other China books, due to a certain packrat book collector friend named Julian who wanted to save on international shipping. The books now reside in Julian’s library in England, and I have my closet back.

If you can’t make out the captions, they say:

“One can ride for many miles, if endurance holds, outside the walls of Chengtu on a type of conveyance particularly favored by the ladies whose bound feet make them poor pedestrians”


“Personally I feel that turn about is fair play at such a job as that of the wheelbarrow coolie of China, since the suffering of client and pusher is about equal”

2. 1945

United China Relief poster

When World War II ended, American troops in the Pacific passed through Shanghai for processing on their way back home. The end of the world war also meant the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War for China, so Shanghai was just coming out of Japanese occupation at the time. This is how Stella Dong describes the scene in “Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City”:

The arrival of the first American ships, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which entered the Yangtze estuary in mid-September, was greeted with frenzied excitement by huge crowds that had gathered along the waterfront. When the vessels came into view, a deafening cheer broke out, and the Americans’ flagship, the Rocky Mount, signified the dawning of a new order by weighing anchor at the Number One buoy, previously reserved for the British flagship. Soon the fleet was joined by units of the U.S. Army Air Corps airlifted into Shanghai from Kwangsi. Over the next year, tens of thousands of Yankees would filter through Shanghai as the city became the central processing point for American soldiers returning to the United States from the Pacific arena. Their presence transformed the city. As thrilled to be off their boats and out of the jungle as the Shanghainese were to see them, the Americans replaced the grimness of the occupation with boisterousness and exuberance. The GIs were everywhere, cheerfully dispensing chocolates and gum to street urchins (who followed them around chanting “no mama, no papa, no whiskey soda”), dancing at the cabarets with a dozen dance tickets sticking out of their pockets, eagerly buying up presents for the folks back home from shopkeepers who had raised their prices to three times their prewar level, and otherwise flooding the city with American greenbacks. Astonishing the normally unflappable Shanghainese with their antics, the crazy Yanks even pulled rickshas through the streets — putting the mystified driver in the passenger’s seat. “These GIs from Nebraska and Arkansas cavorted in the streets, having the time of their lives,” recalled the Shanghai-born actress Tsai Chin. “Ya hooo! . . . Ya hoooo! they shouted, whooping it up with an uncouth vivacity that astounded the populace.”

“Uncouth vivacity” is a pretty good description of what makes Americans abroad both so charming and so not.

(Photo “United China Relief1” by US Gov – http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc472/m1/1/sizes/xl/. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

3. 2013

Jacob Gerow in China

(Photo: Facebook)

This one (involving a Canadian) is less cheerful. Via CBC News – Ontario man to pay $9,500 to victim after China crash:

Jacob Gerow, 19, said he was riding in a rickshaw, which was being dragged by a bike, earlier this week down a road in Huangshan, a mountainous area in the Anhui province in eastern China.

The resident of Alexandria, Ont., added he then asked to take control and when he was riding the bike with the rickshaw driver in the back, he collided with a moped, a low-powered motorcycle.

An elderly woman who was riding on the moped suffered a broken leg and her family demanded $20,000 from Gerow to cover the medical costs, the man told CBC News.

On Friday, Gerow’s family said they struck a deal with the family in China to pay $9,500, which should get the man home.

This article left me wondering a lot of things because accidents in China are usually decided on the spot by police who name a sum that one party has to pay the other. Foreigners sometimes get targeted as an easy jackpot – people will stage accidents then blame the foreigner, or claim to be injured when they’re not. It’s impossible to tell from this article if that’s what happened – maybe he’s completely at fault and really did hurt an innocent old lady. But in any case, he was peddling a rickshaw.

And, a few other miscellaneous moments involving white people & rickshaws:

Rickshaw Run 2012

– There’s an adventure race called the Rickshaw Run where teams spend two weeks traversing India in an auto-rickshaw. (Photo Mitch Moxley)
– Contestants have to pull each other on rickshaws through Phuket in Season 14, episode 7 of The Amazing Race.
– Here’s a rickshaw at Burning Man in 2007.

Also, apparently Zulu rickshaws were a thing in South Africa during the ’60s? (Photo Dennis M. Crosby)


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