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Beguiled by Becaks

Tim Hannigan explores Surabaya on three wheels.

“…and a small squadron of the tricycle-rickshaws called betjaks. As soon as they sighted Hamilton and Kwan most of the betjaks creaked into motion like a flock of ponderous birds, wheeling towards them. Hamilton regarded them with some fascination, as everyone did for the first time, with their black canvas hoods, their sides painted in hurdy-gurdy colours with pictures of volcanoes and wayang heroes, and lettered with bounce house for sale names such as Tiger and Bima, they belonged to another time…”

Christopher J. Koch was writing of 1965, that simmering era of impending violence, when he penned those lines in his novel The Year of Living Dangerously. They belonged to another time even then, and yet, more than forty years later only the old Dutch spelling has changed, and the becaks are still creaking into ponderous action throughout the kampungs and alleyways of Java.

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The becak is the Indonesian incarnation of the ubiquitous pedicab, or cycle-rickshaw, found everywhere from New Delhi to Taiwan, and even now as a tourist attraction in London’s Soho, and parts of New York. But it is Indonesia, and especially Java, that is the true heartland of the pedicab. The becak is as much a motif and symbol of Indonesia as the silhouette of a wayang kulit puppet, or the smell of a clove cigarette.

The becak, a three-wheeled pedal-powered bike with a passenger seat, is the descendant of the original hand-pulled rickshaws that originated in Japan in the 19th Century. The design and style varies from country to country, and even from city to city, but in Indonesia the passenger sits up front, with an uninterrupted view of the busy streets. Despite the best efforts of municipal governments becak still provide transport and employment for millions of people across Indonesia, people like Hilal.

It is early afternoon, and Hilal, a wiry man in his early thirties, born and raised in Surabaya, is eating his lunch. He hunches over a bowl of oily bakso and a glass of sweet iced tea, sweating in the yellow heat, at a tatty little foodcart on Jalan K. H. Mas Mansur on the edge of the old Arab Quarter of the East Javanese Capital. He has been awake since well before dawn. He rose in the darkness for the first prayers of the Muslim day in his house on a narrow alleyway not far from the great Ampel Mosque, sacred heart of Old Surabaya. Then he went out into the blue pre-dawn light, limbs still aching from the day before as he strained at the pedals of his becak. His first passenger of the day was a regular customer, a woman from the Quarter who Hilal takes each day to the dawn vegetable market. After that he fell into the typical slow hours of a becak driver, waiting on street corners, chatting with friends, rousing himself from time to time to try to solicit a fare. In late morning he took an Arab trader to the mosque for midday prayers, and later he will take the same man to the shop of a partner in another part of the Old City.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of becaks in Indonesia, but this was not always the case, and despite their timeless image, they are actually a relatively recent addition to the urban landscape. Before the Second World War becak were virtually unknown. There had been tricycles used for transporting goods for many years, but it was only in 1936 that the first passenger-carrying becak hit the streets of Jakarta. The Dutch authorities took an immediate dislike to the new invention, worrying about safety and congestion, and setting the tone for government attitude to becaks until now. They might have acted to stamp them out altogether, but History intervened.

In 1942 the Japanese Imperial forces landed in Indonesia, ousted the Dutch, and brought about an even more oppressive form of colonial rule. While Indonesian national identity felt its way towards the light, cities choked. The Japanese tightly controlled availability of petrol, banned private ownership of motor vehicles, and eventually strangled the old bus and tram networks. It will no doubt pain commuters who deal with the gridlock of modern Jakarta and Surabaya to know that both cities once had comprehensive and efficient public transport systems. The only major source of urban transport that survived under the Japanese was the horse-drawn dokar, which filled the roles served by both becaks and taxis today. But a horse was an expensive commodity, difficult to feed at a time when many people were going hungry, and they soon began to disappear too. Enter the becak, until then an oddity and a novelty. Cheap, low maintenance, and requiring no fuel other than the strength of its driver, the becak soon became the main – sometimes the only – form of public transport. Post-war turmoil and the protracted independence struggle meant that organised transport networks never really recovered. Bolting the stable door was no use after the horse had gone, and dokars never returned in any numbers. But the becak proliferated. By 1953 there were an estimated 40, 000 in Surabaya alone, and by 1981 becak drivers constituted some 3% of the workforce of that city. In the 1980s there were well over 100,000 in Jakarta.

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Mid-afternoon, and Hilal is idling with friends at the point where Jalan Sasak widens at the gate of the long covered bazaar that leads to the Ampel Mosque. It is a good place to find a fare as worshippers and shoppers who come to the area to buy the religious paraphernalia sold by the Arabs of the Quarter must pass through the mob of becaks when they leave. Hilal has pushed his grimy red baseball cap back on his head and is lounging on the passenger seat of his becak. He has been a becak driver for five years. Before that he worked in a small warehouse south of the Arab Quarter in the old Chinatown, carrying sacks and moving boxes for a salary. Little by little he scrimped and saved until he could afford to buy his own becak, not so expensive, he says, at one million rupiah brand new. Hilal is happier as a becak driver. It’s hard, peddling in the blazing heat of the day, but he is his own boss, and there have been days when he has earned as much as fifty thousand rupiah: far, far more than he ever made when he worked for a wage. But like many in Indonesia, he dreams of a life abroad. He has a cousin in Korea who works in a factory there, complains about the bitter winter cold, but sends meaty remittances back to his family in Surabaya. Someone once told Hilal about the tourist rickshaws in London, and he wonders if he could emigrate there to work. But he has grave doubts about the cost of shipping his becak.

No one seems sure when, or why it started, but becaks have become a canvas for the deep-seated artistic urge of Indonesia, and are often spectacularly and idiosyncratically decorated. They are given names (anything from mythical figures to boy-bands), and painted in kaleidoscopic colours. In Yogyakarta – a becak stronghold – the mudguards of the heavyset becaks there often carry complex and well-executed pictures, while the leaner, longer becaks of Surabaya come in a multitude of patterns. There is a wild array of colour schemes, from Union Jacks and Stars and Stripes, through Coca Cola and Manchester United to the regalia of various political parties (PDI-P is a favourite of becak drivers, perhaps because the bull makes a fine decorative motif rather than because of any particular political sympathy). Tassels sometimes adorn pedals and the wooden slats of the passenger seats often carry bright floral designs, hinting at classical Islamic art.

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But despite their visual appeal, becak have always had a rough ride from the authorities. Since the first prohibitive traffic laws in Dutch Batavia in 1940 they have been seen as the enemy by those who wish to impose order on city streets. From an early stage city councillors complained about becaks. They sometimes righteously suggested that they were a symbol of human exploitation, ignoring the fact that the becak is a form of independent self-employment available even to very poor people like Hilal. But the principal complaint was always that a trundling becak clogs the city streets, impeding the progress of the air-con Kijiangs of the rich, and that they are unsightly, despite their bright colours, unbefitting of modern Indonesia. Registration schemes across the country have attempted to reduce the numbers of becaks, as have police crackdowns on illegal operators. In the 1980s under Soeharto the first major attack on Jakarta’s becaks took place. Unregistered becaks were regularly confiscated and destroyed, and finally in 1988 Bylaw 11 was passed by the City Council, banning them altogether from the city streets. Some forty thousand beautifully decorated becaks, the pride and livelihood of their drivers, were impounded in the name of eradicating poverty and toppled from barges into the murky waters of Jakarta Bay.

In Surabaya too the road of the becak has been rocky. Becaks, and their notoriously rough-spoken drivers, often economic migrants from Madura, are the bugbear and the butt of jokes of people who like to see East Java’s metropolis as the next Singapore. Their manufacture was outlawed in the 1980s and periodic purges have targeted unlicensed drivers. They have been banned from the major roads of the downtown area so the glittering facades of the multiplying shopping malls are not sullied by the reflection of a quietly rolling becak.

But the becak endures away from the multilane highways, rolling through kampung alleyways too cramped for a taxi and beyond the bemo networks. In Jakarta too they cling on in quieter residential areas, despite ongoing official hostility. They have even received support from unexpected quarters in recent years. Environmentalists praise the becak as a totally green form of transport, and point to their increasing appearance in European and North American Cities. In any case, the becak still fills a gap in the infrastructure of urban Indonesia, and as long as there are narrow side streets and people willing to haggle with a dark-faced, grinning man with iron calf muscles for a sedate, gently rattling ride over potholed tarmac, they will exist.

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It is evening, and soon the maghrib prayer call will echo out over the red tiled roofs. Hilal is straining at the peddles. He has taken one last fare further south than his usual territory, beyond Pasar Atom, and now he is heading back towards Ampel with tired limbs, back towards his wife and five-year old son. The sun has dropped far into the West as he crosses the smooth metal of the train tracks and he catches the smell of goats from the rough kampungs beside the rails. Throughout the Old City, and across the whole of Surabaya off the main roads, and indeed all over Java, becak are riding slowly into the dusk.

At the end of The Year of Living Dangerously as Hamilton, the hero of the book, flees an imploding Indonesia, the image he carries with him is of a becak, creaking its way through the kretek-scented darkness. The Year of Living Dangerously is long past, and many more dangerous years have come and gone; both Sukarno and Soeharto have faded from the scene and urban Indonesia has changed almost beyond recognition. But in the quieter side streets of the nation’s cities, with the rattle of a tin bell and the creak of an ill-oiled chain, the becak is still rolling, making its way slowly into the 21st Century.

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3 comments for “Beguiled by Becaks”

  1. Fell in love with becaks during a 1992 visit to Yogyakarta. I’ve posted your story to my Facebook page. That page includes a scan of a souvenir I bought on the streets. It is a rubber stamp of a becak, carved while I waited.

    Posted by Mark | May 13, 2009, 10:09 pm
  2. […] urban landscapes, from San Diego to Barcelona. Here’s a look at the the Becak, as reported by Tim Hannigan of Kabar […]

    Posted by Beguiled by Becaks ~ the fast-disappearing ubiquitous pedicabs of Indonesia « E n c h a n t i n g E d e n | August 31, 2009, 5:09 pm
  3. I lived in Jakarta from 1970-1977 -4th-10th grade. Becaks were how i got to my friends houses and to the market place. either my parents didn’t realize how much i used them or they chose to ignore it!

    Posted by connie | October 8, 2012, 11:38 pm

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