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Wheels of Misfortune

2 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor

Invented in Japan, rickshaws became a ubiquitous symbol of Western imperialism in the 19th century as native coolies hauled around their foreign masters in places as far afield as Shanghai and Zanzibar. But as they were steadily replaced by more efficient—and less demeaning—conveyances, the two-wheeled, human-powered carriages gradually disappeared from streets around the world. Now, the rickshaw’s long, bumpy road is at a dead end. Calcutta, the last major metropolis with a traditional rickshaw fleet still in operation, will ban them following a state law passed last week declaring the vehicles “inhumane.” Here are some other stops in the rickshaw’s cosmopolitan, yet controversial, career.

FRANCE In 18th century Paris, runners pulled vinaigrettes—proto-rickshaws named after the wheelbarrows used to bear vinegar. This 1707 painting by Claude Gillot, Les Deux Carrosses, shows two early examples

JAPAN The jinrikisha (human-force wheel), thought to have been invented here by local carpenters or American missionaries, became the most popular form of transport during the time of the Meiji Restoration. Over 25,000 rickshaws roamed Tokyo’s streets in the 1870s

SOUTH AFRICA A British sugar magnate in Durban imported the vehicle from Japan toward the end of the 19th century. By 1904, the city boasted 2,000 rickshaws, many pulled by Zulu migrants wearing elaborate traditional headdresses for the enjoyment of their colonial patrons

CHINA Brought to Shanghai from Japan in 1874, rickshaws were banned as symbols of bourgeois imperialism by Mao Zedong in 1949—although the sanlunche, a rickshaw descendant pulled by the more proletarian bicycle, still carries tourists through the alleys near Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square

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