Penang’s last trishaw maker to put the brakes on business

GEORGE TOWN: Trishaws used to be a common sight in Penang, but these days, cars and other means of transportation have nearly phased them out. In fact, we all may consider trishaws to be only a novelty for tourists to enjoy.

Not much thought goes into how these trishaws are made, maintained and repaired, but one person takes this art very seriously – Choo Yew Choon, the last person in the city who can make a trishaw from scratch.

All of Choo’s wonderful trishaws were made in a shop lot called ‘Hup Huat Tricycle and Bicycle Repair’ on the narrow street of Rope Walk, and it is a family business that has been around for a century now.

Once Choo Yew Choon retires, the lost art of trishaw making in Penang will retire alongside him. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Choo’s skills, inherited from his father and his grandfather, have not only impressed local and foreign customers, but royal ones as well.

Choo puts on a sparkling light show while cutting long lengths of metal. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

“Six to seven years ago, the Sultan of Johor ordered a trishaw from me. After I finished, he sent someone to pick it up in a military vehicle,” recalls the 64-year-old Choo fondly.

Royalty aside, passers-by would often notice orange embers spark and fly out from the dark doorway of a nondescript shop lot, and before they know it, they’re underneath Hup Huat’s golden sign, mesmerised by Choo’s sparkling light show of metalwork.

The legendary workshop is currently crammed with bicycles, shelves of bare wheels and scattered tools; not an unusual sight as it was once filled with trishaws as well.

Choo points to a red trishaw he made years ago, which was used for human transportation. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

“There are three different types of trishaws; the ones you normally see are used for transporting people, but there are also hawker trishaws and manual labour and supplies trishaws,” explains Choo, who elaborates that the assembly of a trishaw is also broken down into three parts consisting of wood, metal and bicycle work.

A stunning new trishaw requires 20 days and RM6,000, and it will come with special upgrades added by the trishaw master himself.

“My trishaws are different from the traditional ones, as my seats are 34 inches in width as opposed to the usual 30 inches. This allows everyone to sit more comfortably.”

A laughing Choo also adds that since people have grown bigger over the years, his trademark trishaw seats have been one of his best ideas.

Choo cuts off protruding metal from the base of a hawker trishaw. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

These past few days, Choo has been crouched in front of his workshop, repairing a blue hawker trishaw. It is all worn and torn with pieces of broken wood at the bottom, but it will only take a couple of days for Choo to get it back in tip-top condition.

Choo works diligently, not flinching from the metallic ringing and bright sparks that burst from his sharp blade as small metal pieces snap and break away from the broken base.

When asked about his start in the business during FMT’s visit, Choo wipes the sweat off his brow and begins to reminisce.

Choo has made more than 100 trishaws in his lifetime. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

“My interest in mechanic work began when I was in Standard Four or Five, but my son started even earlier as he had dismantled a bicycle on his own when was just seven years old,” says a smiling Choo.

But, he adds, everything truly began when his great-grandfather first opened Hup Huat’s doors a century ago at shop lot number 399 on Chulia Street. He saw his grandfather and father work on hundreds and hundreds of trishaws.

The time came for a young Choo, who was working as a technician at a steel factory, to take over when his father fell sick 30 years ago.

Choo is famous in Penang as his workshop wall is covered with numerous newspaper clippings about his business. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

“When I went to Gurney Drive back in the day, I used to find a lot of work for myself and was called there weekly to fix hawker trishaws,” recalls Choo.

“Sometimes, I even fixed those vintage metal chairs and silver tables which were set aside for customers.”

Choo remembers the time when trishaws always had to be in mint condition to pass the four-month road licence renewal.

“The officials would inspect your trishaw, and if they found a hole in your roof, they would take a knife and rip a bigger hole in it and ask you to come back when it’s fixed.

“I think this was done to avoid hurting Penang’s tourism market and dealing with angry and wet passengers!”

But that was 60 years ago, remarks Choo, and the council isn’t that strict these days.

A customer drops off a bicycle that needs repairing. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Times are certainly different now, and Hup Huat, which has been passed down four generations so far, has seen the type of services its 100-year-old workshop offers shift over the years.

Work used to be abundant back then, recalls Choo, when over 2,574 hawker trishaws faced Gurney Drive and the open seas.

Now, with only 150 trishaws left in Penang, Choo spends most of his days repairing bicycles and tricycles.

“There aren’t many trishaws left and most of them don’t need constant fixing, so there isn’t much income from there.

“I don’t want my children to take over this dying business.”

Hup Huat’s storefront and golden sign. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

As such, Choo has made up his mind about Hup Huat’s century-old legacy.

“Once I run out of the wheels I’ve stocked up on, I plan on retiring,” says a resolute Choo, who estimates that the current supply of wheels would probably last for another four to five years.

When that time comes, Choo would be close to 70 years old, the perfect age to say goodbye to this physically laborious line of work, he adds.

In turn, Penang would have to bid a fond farewell to its last trishaw maker and the dying art of trishaw making as the famous shop shuts its doors for good.

Hup Huat Tricycle and Bicycle Repair
19th Jalan Pintal Tali
10100 George Town

Operating hours: 4pm to midnight, daily

By : Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle

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