by MIRO CERNETIG
China Bureau, Beijing
Wednesday, June 23, 1999
Beijing -- From the day Chairman Mao Tsetung's portrait rose over Tiananmen Square, the rickshaw seemed doomed. A rich man's lounge chair on wheels, drawn by poor boys or desiccated old men, it was viewed as the ultimate symbol of "coolie culture" and China's subjugation by the West.
Mao was determined to eradicate capitalist "evils" from Communist China. So, for most of the past 50 years, the rickshaw had been relegated to China's museums and history books -- even as it has become a familiar sight in tourist centres around the world.
In recent weeks, however, the rickshaw has made a comeback, quietly rolling back into the heart of Beijing. It may be considered a novelty elsewhere, but the shiny contraption with a yellow top painfully reminds the Chinese of a time when they were seen as little more than beasts of burden.
"It's inhuman to treat people like animals -- to make a man into a horse," Lang Shenyuan, 73, said yesterday as he caught sight of the new rickshaws on Beijing's famed Dashilan Street. "This is not a good thing for China."
For those who recall the poverty before the Communist Revolution, their presence is another dangerous sign that China is losing its values to some of the vices that plagued its past.
Prostitutes now loiter on the street and in hotel lobbies, and AIDS is on the rise. There are beggars on most streets. Drugs -- including opium -- are back on the scene.
Even the Internet, carefully regulated for political content by the secret police, has become a conduit into China for hard-core pornography that ranges from bestiality to underaged sex.
Citizens are becoming alarmed.
"Let's face it, nobody can stop this poor morality that is invading," said Zhang Qing, a 55-year-old laid-off steelworker who was killing time in a Beijing park.
"All the old evils are definitely back again. I never believed a rickshaw would come back to Beijing in my lifetime. Mao would not be happy with the current situation."
A walk up Dashilan Street certainly finds that others are indignant at the reappearance of the rickshaw boys, most of whom are in their 20s and laid off from their jobs.
"It's people exploiting people," said a man who drives a pedicab. Having attached a bicycle to the front of his lounge chair, he believes that the exploitative nature of carrying people has been eliminated.
"I am not totally human-powered. I am half-machine and half-human; that's okay. But the government eliminated the rickshaws more than 40 years ago. Nobody except a laid-off worker wants to be a rickshaw boy."
Most older Chinese can still recite the story of Rickshaw Boy, the classic novel by Chinese literary giant Lao She that chronicled the hellish life of Xiangze, one of the "camel boys" who pulled the rich (and usually white) men to the fleshpots and nightclubs of prerevolutionary China.
"He just wants to keep running," Lao She wrote in 1937, describing the life of his rickshaw boy's desperate attempt to find the money to buy his own cart and make a better life. "He is just like a starving and crazy beast."
An old guidebook from 1934, written by an anonymous American, hints at what rich foreigners and Chinese thought of the rickshaw boy's place in the universe. "Rickshaw coolies live in dire poverty," it said. "Pay them liberally but not foolishly, for it is an idiosyncrasy of the coolie mind to mistake generosity for idiocy."
"In the old China, there were a lot of rickshaw boys," fulminated Mr. Lang, so indignant at the memory that in yesterday's sweltering heat he began gesticulating with his Popsicle, splattering a nearby tourist. "Excuse me," he said, taking out his handkerchief to wipe the stranger's shirt.
"I hate seeing the rickshaw boys back. Chairman Mao was a proud man. He would never allow this to happen. If it will do any good, I am prepared to write a letter to the government to complain."
But one of the new rickshaw boys insists that times have changed. Wearing a shiny gold-silk shirt and black cloth slippers to attract attention, Liu Yanqing charges $2 to cart people, mostly Western tourists, down the street and back up again, giving them up to four pictures to remember the event.
On the job for about six weeks now, the 24-year-old said the ideological debate doesn't much bother him.
"When I work, some people say this is good for the street, for tourism," he said, fixing his yellow cap to his head and making sure that his camera was full of film for the passing tourists.
"But others tell me it is a bad thing, a symbol of the old China. I really don't know what Mao would think of what I do."
After a pause, however, Mr. Liu added that the old days of dogmatically following only the Communist economic theory are long over. In China today, people borrow from both Marx and the West, he said, explaining his pragmatism with the popular adage of Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who introduced ordinary Chinese to the market economy that prevails in China today.
"I tell those that complain about me that Deng Xiaoping said it doesn't matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the mouse," he said.
Business has been so-so, Mr. Liu said. But he likes the job because he can practise his English and keep in shape while he saves money to achieve his dream of becoming a photographer, something he acknowledges might lead to a better life.
"For now, this is a good job and it's good for my health. But I will eventually leave it."
A shopkeeper wandered over to the rickshaws and gave a throaty laugh in Mr. Liu's direction. She said she liked riding in a rickshaw, but she made it clear that the drivers were still on the lowest rung of the food chain.
"Look at his skin," she said, pointing to the bespectacled Mr. Liu. "Before he came here, his skin was white and he looked like an intellectual. Now, he is dark-skinned, like a worker."
Mr. Liu looked on stoically. He said lots of people see nothing wrong with his job, especially among his generation.
Indeed, over at the Lao She Teahouse, named after the famous writer, the young waitresses are in favour of the rickshaw's return.
"I don't know what Lao She would think," said a young woman, who stood before a bronze statue of the writer. "Lao She's stories were mostly sad. But I think bringing back the rickshaw is good for Beijing. It goes well with the old buildings."
But there are apparently limits to the rickshaw boys' domain. Another driver, Ma Xin, who pulls a rickshaw in the downtown area, refused to take a customer into Tiananmen Square, under the Gate of Heavenly Peace where Mao's famous portrait hangs. "The police will stop us from going there."
It's a restriction with which the Chairman would no doubt agree.
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