02 August 2011

Book Review: Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore (2003), by James Warren, *****


Between 1880 and 1930 colonial Singapore attracted tens of thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers, brought to serve its rapidly growing economy. This book chronicles the vast movement of coolies between China and the Nanyang, and their efforts to survive in colonial Singapore.


This is a well written history of the rickshaw in Singapore. For over half a century this means of transportation marked the daily life of the then British colony, only to be gradually superseded by motor transport in the XX century. Coolies came mostly from China and their immigration contributed to making the social composition of Sigapore what it is today. Their proletarian life tell us a lot about the ethical values, the politics and the economics of Singapore in that period (1880-1940). Gambling, brothels and opium smoking were part of a common lifestyle.

The book provides an avalanche of details about individual episodes and this makes for excessively wordy chapters. The long appendices, with tables and tables of facts, might have sufficed to provide the historian's data. Nonetheless, this is strongly recommended reading to get an important perspective of life in Singapore as people really lived it in the period covered. Amazing to learn that rickshaws were, for many years, the sole ambulances in the colony! The rickshaw puller deserves his place in history and (unlike what is written on page 326) there is a rickshaw now at the National Museum.

 Puller's statue in Singapore's Chinatown

In Europe you can buy it here:

In the US and worldwide you can buy it here:

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