Reluctant Heroes

Reluctant Heroes: Rickshaw Pullers in Hong Kong and Canton, 1874-1954

Fung Chi Ming
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    Reluctant Heroes
    Book Description:

    Through the history of rickshaw pullers in Hong Kong and Canton, Reluctant Heroes provides a rich portrait of the urban milieu and life in two contrasting yet interrelated cities in South China. Fung Chi Ming explains the dynamics between the rickshaw pullers' participation in collective action and the intervention of the British colonial and Chinese authorities, and traces the pullers' emergence and eclipse as a political force. Reluctant Heroes is a fascinating study of rickshaw pullers in Hong Kong and Canton. The author reconstructs the daily lives and social environments of rickshaw pullers, the majority of whom were emigrants who differed in the loyalties of dialect, place of origin and kinship. Low- skilled yet partially self-employed, rickshaw pullers relied on entrepreneurial flair, in addition to physical stamina, to tout for fares, thus bridging the culture of petty traders and physical laborers. In the volatile urban environment, they were subjected not just to patron-client problems, but also the directives and regulations of the state, and to interventions of the police, and the British colonial and Chinese authorities. Rickshaw pullers struggled with their adversities and became a political force to be reckoned with. Fung argues that they are "reluctant heroes," since their collective outbursts were authentic protests against encroachments on their livelihood. They were spurred into collective actions that were at times cheered by the public, or embroiled in city politics, thus suffering great losses in political storms, when they would have preferred to lead quiet, anonymous lives. Set against the backdrop of two contrasting yet interrelated cities in South China, Reluctant Heroes brings a richer understanding of urban living through a comparative study of the historic pattern of adaptation in the urban workplace, the powers of the state, and the repertoire of mass activism.

    eISBN: 978-988-220-265-8
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Map of Pearl River Delta — Canton and Hong Kong, circa 1910
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Patrick H. Hase

    It is with the greatest pleasure that I write this Foreword to the first volume in the Royal Asiatic Society (Hong Kong Branch) Hong Kong Studies Series. The series has been created by the Council of the Society to enable the publication of important and high quality academic work in English in Hong Kong studies, and thereby to encourage scholars to work in this field.

    A Trust Fund has been formally and legally established in the name of Sir Lindsay and Lady Ride, in memory of the Society’s first Vice-President; donors have generously and substantially increased the sum set aside...

  6. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  7. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  8. Editorial Conventions
    (pp. xix-xx)
  9. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    In 1867, the first rickshaw was thrown together in Japan by an American Baptist missionary, Jonathan Goble (1827–96). A cycle transport balanced on two wheels and pulled by the strength of one person, the rickshaw found its way to Hong Kong in 1874, only several years after its invention (Hongkong Times January 23, 1874). In the nearby city of Canton, the rickshaw was tried out for public transport at least as far back as 1906, when a road connecting the city proper with the eastern suburb some miles away was constructed to completion (Wah Tsz Yat Po March 29,...

  10. PART ONE: Across the Colonial Matrix
    • 1 A City of Sojourners and Transients
      (pp. 9-20)

      Hong kong was a constituent part of a global Chinese diaspora and a regional sub-community in South China. After being founded as a British settlement, it gradually developed into a commercial and financial hub in the region. A majority of the transients and sojourners were single males from South China. They flocked into Hong Kong where, generally, life was comparably tolerable. As the border was normally unguarded in the pre-World War II period, there was no limit on the number of asylum-seekers who could come. Hong Kong has gone through fluctuations in the size of its population, triggered by bubonic...

    • 2 The Urban Workplace and Street Politics
      (pp. 21-36)

      It is the intent of this chapter to give a real impression of the hopes and dreams governing the lives of rickshaw pullers in common public places. Filled with people of various nationalities and from all walks of life, the street was a contested or even politicized geographical domain where a vibrant mosaic of people — and their emotions, ideologies and attitudes — co-existed but not always in harmony. Their varied interests crossed in many ways and mingled extensively. The hustle and bustle of the street was suffused with rivalries and skirmishes, jealousies and envy, bickering and maneuvers, bellicosity and turbulence, all...

    • 3 British Rule and Chinese Valiancy, up to 1926
      (pp. 37-56)

      Hong kong (meaning “Fragrant Harbor” in Chinese), formerly a crown colony under British sovereignty and now a Special Administrative Region of China, is situated off the southeastern coast of Kwangtung Province, at the mouth of the Pearl River Estuary.¹ A European traveler, on a trip to South China before World War II, was impressed with Hong Kong’s “order and thoroughness, its civil and social organization and all the best and most modern improvements” (Sewell 1933, 77). The orderly running of the crown colony was, however, disturbed by many problems. The colonial administrators found themselves constantly surrounded by Chinese faces. Although...

  11. PART TWO: Republican Canton, 1911–38
    • 4 Evolution of a New Civic Paradigm
      (pp. 59-76)

      Canton, one of the oldest cities in South China, where East and West commingled, was once regarded as the “London of China,” and the Pearl River with its own estuary provided the major waterway between Canton and nearby districts (Browne 1901, 55). “A city of contrasts between the old China and the new ideas of Europe” was a remark on Canton made by a columnist for The Times of London, in 1919, the year of the important May Fourth Movement (The Times May 14, 1919). Along with a labyrinth of asphalt roads meant for motor traffic were winding alleyways within...

    • 5 Partisan Politics and the 1927 Insurrection
      (pp. 77-94)

      The southern city of Canton has a tradition of dissent activity and is called “the cradle of the Chinese revolution” (Zhongguo geming ceyuandi 中國革命策源地) for its strategic centrality to Chinese politics in the stormy years of the Late Qing and afterwards, also in remembrance of the “martyrs” of many generations and political inclinations. Canton was faced with a severance of relations with the central authority in the north. The Cantonese people, as an observer expressed it, “possess all the Irishmen’s ingrained penchant for conspiracies, all his talent for political organization. They are traditionally and by temperament ‘agin the government’, heirs...

    • 6 Reforms on the Municipal Agenda in the 1930s
      (pp. 95-110)

      The reform proposals for bettering the lot of rickshaw pullers were taking shape and being placed on Canton’s policy agenda during the 1930s. In exploring areas of intervention for the sake of helping the poverty-stricken pullers to get out of their “trapped” situation, the city reformers not only continued the activities by which they had sought to do this but also displayed a preparedness to go beyond normal constraints in finding solutions to problems. Although the pledged suggestions for the benefit of the pullers turned out to be a string of broken promises, their failure is significant, permitting a glimpse...

  12. PART THREE: Within a Fast-Changing Context
    • 7 Growing Passion for Change, up to 1941
      (pp. 113-128)

      At many points in the colonial phase of Hong Kong’s history, there were mass movements in the form of economic strikes and patriotic boycotts against those foreign powers accorded special privileges (like concessions and settlements) in China. The Chinese seamen’s strike of 1922, for instance, completely paralyzed the colony for two months. Subsequent strikes and protests against the heavy-handed suppression and massacre of peaceful Chinese demonstrators by the foreign police forces in Shanghai and Canton’s Shameen were followed by an absolute boycott of all goods of British manufacture, at the instigation of politically inspired Chinese labor activists. To the discomfort...

    • 8 Surviving in the Pacific War, 1937–45
      (pp. 129-142)

      The outbreak of China’s war of resistance in 1937 and the subsequent Japanese rule changed relationships between people, and between the society and the state. Through the days of the occupation, urban social movements were conspicuously absent. However, the seeds of antagonism were sown during this period for later development of new forms of employer-employee relations. In addition, the Japanese military yen (printed notes that were unnumbered and meant only for wartime use) dwindled, and food supplies were always inadequate. As a result of the abrupt drop in motor traffic due to the shortage of gasoline, people turned to different...

    • 9 Rise to the Postwar Zenith of Activism
      (pp. 143-158)

      Hong kong was under Japanese rule from December 1941 until September 1945, when an interim British military administration was set up as a provisional authority until the civil administration took over on May 1, 1946. The transition from war to peace was accompanied by an increased awareness of the populace of the desirability of union organization and combination in pursuit of common ends. Over the ensuing nine months, approximately 136 associations founded mainly on principles of dialect, place of origin, kinship, and trade sprang up. Varying in size and strength from a few hundred to 500, they had the avowed...

    • 10 Establishing a New Agenda, up to the 1950s
      (pp. 159-170)

      This chapter is concerned with the twilight years of the rickshaw in Canton. From a staggering high of 4,500 in 1946 the number of rickshaws fell to 2,500 on the eve of the Communist takeover. In articulating this portrait, which involved the promotion of pedicabs in lieu of rickshaws, one cannot avoid seeing the official rhetoric against rickshaws and the control over the economy and society by the Nationalist and Communist party-states. Benefiting from the policy support of the city government, the pedicabs were found in abundance on the streets. Once an enormously popular form of transport in the city,...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 171-180)

    We end, as we began, with the historic pattern of urban assimilation that provides a gateway to a deeper understanding of Chinese life. During the period under study, the heterogeneity of the Chinese in Hong Kong and Canton was evidenced by the traditional kinship-based migration pattern, the subethnic differences, competition and exclusion that prevailed in certain occupations, and the areal concentration of members of the same hometown and speech groups. These factors meant little meaningful interaction among many different social types, despite years of coexistence. The close personal touch at home and workplace locales, such as the rudimentary gatherings in...

  14. Abbreviations
    (pp. 181-184)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-200)
  16. Index
    (pp. 201-216)