Melaka trishaw riders losing their way in heritage journey

Many trishaws in Melaka are decorated with characters from cartoons and movies and blare out Western songs, at odds with the identity of the Unesco World Heritage site.
Many trishaws in Melaka are decorated with characters from cartoons and movies and blare out Western songs, at odds with the identity of the Unesco World Heritage site.PHOTO: ST FILE

MELAKA • Beads of perspiration trickle down Mr Arshad Abu Jabar's wrinkled face as he peddles his trishaw along the streets of Melaka.

His sunburnt skin comes from 20 years of hitting the roads, recycling information on the town's various attractions to new customers.

But while Mr Arshad, 56, said his earnings have improved compared with 10 to 20 years ago, what he is sweating over is his belief that the trade is at risk of losing its identity. 

"The trishaws we have now are decorated with characters from cartoons and movies and blare out Western songs. Can we say that these are truly reflective of Melaka?

"They may attract children and tourists, but over time, Melaka's heritage value will be lost."

Melaka, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage site on July 7, 2008, has benefited from that recognition, with many Singaporeans turning up for vacations.

They will have seen, even sat in, trishaws that sport characters such as Anna and Elsa from the movie Frozen and Japanese characters like Doraemon.

Popular Western songs like Let It Go from Frozen and the Doraemon theme song have replaced Malaysian traditional tunes to catch the ear of tourists.

But Mr Arshad is doing his bit to pull the brakes on such practices. His own trishaw flaunts fauna and flora designs to promote the state's heritage and he prefers to play traditional songs.

"I will tell them what the songs are all about. Only when I explain it to them do they understand what our heritage is and become fond of it."

State Assemblyman Damian Yeo is also concerned that the trishaw riders are losing their way when it comes to heritage.

"I know it's hard to find a traditional trishaw as many operators have commercialised their services and prefer to decorate their trishaws with designs (from) movies like Snow White," he said.

Determined that the traditional trishaw would not ride off into the sunset, he added that it would be among the elements to be included in an upcoming theme park in Perkampungan Hang Tuah, in his Duyong constituency.

It is expected to open early next year in conjunction with Visit Melaka Year 2019.

The theme park will also feature a bullock cart track, horse carts and models of bicycles used in the past.

According to Mr Arshad, the state government became serious about promoting its trishaws as a tourism product about 20 years ago.

Initially, its objective was to help improve the livelihood of the riders.

But when tourism operators sniffed out how lucrative the trade could be, they started to offer services by acquiring the existing trishaws.

"Year by year, more and more trishaws are being controlled by the tourism companies and now we have fewer riders who possess their own trishaw. Now what many do is rent a trishaw from a company for between RM30 (S$10) and RM50 a day," Mr Arshad noted.

The big players also make arrangements with hotels and travel agents to take tourists for a spin and "in the end, those of us with our own trishaws are marginalised", he added.

Those who own trishaws can make about RM70 a day on weekdays and up to RM200 on weekends and public holidays.

However, those who rent their trishaws from tourism companies can earn more.

On an average weekday, there are about 80 riders vying for business, with the number going up to more than 300 on weekends and public holidays.

BERNAMA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2018, with the headline 'Melaka trishaw riders losing their way in heritage journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe