Despite how short our one week stint in Malaysia was, we definitely captured many interesting shots of the bicycle and its various uses. Much of this was possible with the help of our lovely host and translator Ru, who sped us around in her ‘Ru-mobile’ to hunt down various aunties and uncles on bikes.
To continue my previous post ‘The Technology-Practice of the Bicycle”, I hope that this post will help to bring out the mutable relationship of the bicycle and the user, and the ways that this instructs both cultural and organisational changes. By stringing these photos into broad themes of function, heritage and transference, and emerging cycling culture, we hope to make some sense of the story of the bicycle and its users in Malaysia.
The first thing that we noticed about the bike in Malaysia was its diversity in its appearance, form and function. While the creativity within these various uses were immediately evident, what struck me was how closely the form of the bicycle suited the needs of the user – sometimes in really interesting ways. In an age where we look for the swankiest and the snazziest toys to own, some of the folks in Malaysia made me think about valuing a piece of technology for exactly what you need, and not for the blinking lights, the bells and the whistles.
This bicycle was converted to a food cart. The bicycle no longer works and its tires have been flat for ages but it functions perfectly fine as a food cart. Similar food carts create a distinctive street food culture in Butterworth, Penang. This particular cart sold cai fan (mixed rice), alongside another cart selling liang cha (cooling tea). Both vendors were equally pai seh (embarrassed) about posing for a photograph though. This photo shows how the creative use of the bike has both cultural and organisational (economic) effects in interesting ways!
Of course, the bicycle is still a very common method of transport for children to get to school. This boy is one of many whom we saw as we were on the road. The bike that he uses is typical of the Chinese produced bikes commonly found in the bike shops of Malaysia.
This man is a Karang Guni (rag and bone man) we saw in Butterworth, Penang. Note how he resourcefully maximises the real estate on his bicycle by using bungee cords, wooden boxes, a basket and his handle bars. This bike is one of the oldest ones that we have seen, but it suits his purposes perfectly.
We saw this boy in Merbok, Kedah. This was one of the snazziest bikes that we had seen in a while. He claims he uses the bike on weekends to go mountain biking. We didn’t see any hardcore trails but he might have been referring to he hill we climbed the next day. We saw few but notable numbers of other similar users of the bike. This may be a sign that the bike is becoming increasingly popular as a form of recreation for the privileged.
This lady cycles to work at a biscuit factory daily. Her bicycle is an example of the locally produced bikes that used to be very commonplace in Malaysia, but is no longer produced. She mentioned how she spent a long time looking for this bike after her old bike became spoilt beyond repair. She has been holding on dearly to this bike for 20 years since. She has held on to this old model for so long because the low bar allows her to step over easily to get on. She knows how hard it is to find a similar bike nowadays, and so would rather constantly fix it rather than replace it. We chanced by her again at the bike shop changing out her broken seat!
Heritage and Transference
We managed to uncover a bit of the heritage and nostalgia surrounding the bicycle. The older generation seems to have fond memories of the type of bicycles that were commonplace back in the day. We saw a common trend of this heritage being slowly and inadvertently lost to a new form of cycling culture.
This is the first bicycle shop that we visited. The man has run the business for the past 16 years, and got into the business because it was good money at the time. He says that he no longer holds the old antique bicycles because no one wants them anymore. When asked what the biggest change all these years has been – he repleis that bicycles are no longer a means of transport for the poor, but increasingly a recreational vehicle for the rich.
We barely caught this lady as we drove past. She proudly shows of her bike after some coaxing and gave us high fives afterward. She said that she has been using the bike since she was a teen. Despite her age at 70, she continues to ride, and even carries loads on her rear rack.
This is one of the oldest bike shops in town. Check out the metal roof! If you look beside Ru, you see the same lady who has come to fix her broken seat!
Although the exterior and interior design of the shop has not changed much, its interesting how all the bikes that they hold are all new models, mostly produced in China. When asked about this, the owner mentions how they once had a huge shipment of old locally produced bikes which they found impossibly difficult to sell off. This shows how the changing preferences of consumers organises and changes the industries of the bicycle from within.
Ru remembers this exact same uncle from her childhood! When asked if his son is going to take over the shop, he shakes his head and says that his son works at a company in town and that the shop will just have to close down. Although he looked slightly disappointed, he seems to have come to terms with this.
Ru reminiscing about the times when she was a young school girl who used to cycle her bicycle here to get it fixed.
This lady brought her son to fix his bicycle. She says that she used to frequent the shop when she was young. She no longer cycles much, but she returns to the shop with her son whenever necessary. The owners of the shop mention how their customers are predominantly the children of their past consumers. To me, this spoke of transference and renewal of the bicycle culture in Malaysia. Although the heritage may be increasingly lost over the years, this transference passes a bit of it on to the next generation.
Emerging Cycling Culture
As the bicycle culture of the past slowly fades away, we see how the bicycle is nowhere near dead, just in a different form. We witnessed how most riders were predominantly the old and the young. This section captures the spirit of the bicycle being carried on.
In Malaysia, kids start to ride early. This is Edam with his bicycle. Taken in Merbok, Kedah.
Kids can only ride if bikes are produced to their size. Check out how small this frame is! Meant for kids 4 and up.
We saw multiple fluorescent adolescent bike gangs. These bicycles are predominantly fixies and very popular with the young. In this picture you see three bigger boys and one smaller boy with a less loud bike. Before this picture was taken the smaller boy took off the cap of his older friend and tried to pose with it. Observing these social dynamics and understanding how much the bike can be a form of identity and of social grouping, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the boy ‘graduates’ to a similar bike in a few years time!
This boy rolled by on his back wheel while we were making a rest stop. It shows how the young are using the bike as much more than merely a means of transport!
The week in Malaysia opened our eyes to the different forms and ways in which the bicycle continues to evolve within Malaysia. Do similar trends continue in Thailand and beyond? Can anything be said about a greater Southeast Asian story about the bike and the emergence of a new cycling culture distinct from the past? Does Thailand hold on to its heritage in a different way? Stay with the chakrayan chums to find out!