A back to front Rickshaw, a reverse Tuk Tuk, closer to a warped rickshaw than a Bajaj, the Becak is a delightful mode of transport and a curious design object which occupies a special place in Indonesian culture, history and design.
The ubiquitous Indonesian interpretation of the cycle rickshaw, Becaks consist of a front facing passenger seat and a main cycle behind. A Becak will fit two passengers comfortably and offers a protective canopy that shades commuters from the sun and a plastic adjustable sheet to aid against rainstorms. Fares are negotiable (a euphemism for haggling) and are determined by traveling distance.
Once a common site in Jakarta these iconic rickshaws have been banned at various times in recent history within the city limits, due to their tendency to contribute to traffic jams (The Vine, 2012). But Yogyakarta and numerous other Javanese cities still boast healthy Becak populations and as Inside Indonesia notes:
‘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’ (Inside Indonesia, 2002).
The three-wheeled Becak design varies from city to city, in colour scheme, upholstery, and mechanics but the basic concept is resoundingly popular across Indonesia. A likely descendant of 19th Century Japanese hand-pulled rickshaws the seating design of a Becak allows passengers to sit up front and have a comprehensive view of busy city roads, narrow streets and general metropolitan activity (Living in Indonesia, 2016). The attempts of various municipal governments to outlaw this humble form of transport have largely failed (excepting Jakarta) and there are still countless Becaks populating cityscapes and towns across Indonesia. Despite their enduring image Becaks were only introduced to Indonesia during WWII – first appearing in Jakarta in 1936 (Top Indonesia, 2016). They were initially favored by Chinese traders – the name Becak originates from Be Chia (Hokkien Dialect for “horse carriage”). They were also known as ‘Roda Tiga’ (The Three Wheels).
Becak drivers make up a considerable percentage of the informal work sector in Indonesia – a much maligned but intrinsic element of the national and local economy.
As Inside Indonesia notes ‘No one knows for sure how many people make up the informal sector in Indonesia. Yet it is a central part of life. But tensions between the city administration and the urban poor – particularly Becak (trishaw) drivers – are high’ (Inside Indonesia, 2002).
The informal sector (street vendors, drivers, and laborers) have little or no legal protection and legislation often does not appreciate or protect their status as vital contributors to community and economy. Despite their obvious charm and popularity amongst tourists, expats and locals Becak still face opposition on some political fronts. Let’s hope that Indonesian municipalities follow Yogyakarta’s example and accept the Becak as an ‘unacknowledged slice of the city community [that] is actually its heart’ (Inside Indonesia, 2002).
Asahjaya. 2011, Becak, Asahjaya’s Place, viewed 12 Feb 2017, <https://asahjaya.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/night-photography-on-a-moving-becak/>.
Inside Indonesia 2002, Whose City?, Jakarta, viewed 10 Feb 2017, < http://www.insideindonesia.org/whose-city-2?highlight=WyJiZWNhayIsImRyaXZlcnMiLCJkcml2ZXJzJyIsImJlY2FrIGRyaXZlcnMiXQ%3D%3D>.
Katherine. 2013, Becak, Katherine and Bruno’s Adventures, viewed 10 February 2017 <https://noforeignlands.org/2013/07/18/in-central-java-taking-our-time-in-a-becak/>.
Liemp. 2017, Abang Becak, Deviant Art, viewed 9 February 2017, <http://liemp.deviantart.com/art/abang-becak-150244875>.
Living in Indonesia 2016, Traditional and Modern Public Transport in Jakarta, viewed 11 Feb 2017, <http://www.expat.or.id/info/traditionaltransport.html>.
The Vine 2012, All About Indonesia #4: Modes of Transport – The Becak, viewed 11 Feb 2017, <https://thevonline.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/all-about-indonesia-4-modes-of-transport-the-becak/>.
Top Indonesia, 2016, Becaks, the traditional transportation in Indonesia, Indonesia, viewed 11 Feb 2017, <http://www.topindonesiaholidays.com/blog/?p=4191>.