It dawned on me recently that it would be interesting to research and write a social and cultural history of roads in Southeast Asia. What is more, if one focused on areas that came under British rule, then it would be quite easy to do so for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as there are a lot of sources in English that one could use.

Penang roads

For instance I came across the above announcement about new taxes that were to be levied on different forms of transport on the island of Penang in 1827. This is a what was to be taxed:

On each and every four wheeled Carriage, except Palankeens [i.e., palanquins] on Wheels = 12 Spanish Dollars per year;

On all Palankeens on four Wheels = 8 Spanish Dollars per year;

On all Buggies and Carriages on two Wheels = 6 Spanish Dollars per year;

On all Carts drawn by one or more Buffaloes, Bullocks, Bulls, Cows, Horses, Mares, Geldings, Asses, or Mules = 6 Spanish Dollars per year;

On every Horse, Mare or Gelding (with the exception of two to each Military Officer) = 2 Spanish Dollars per year.


So the roads on Penang in 1827 were clearly spaces where humans and animals provided the power for transportation. Later in the nineteenth century another human-powered vehicle, the rickshaw, was introduced, and that had a big effect on streets and lives, as James Warren demonstrated years ago in his Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore. 1880-1940.


Then came automobiles. . . I found an article in the Sarawak Gazette from 1929 in which someone wrote about what he saw pass by on the street in Kuching over a five minute period. This is what he documented:

Morris Tamil

A Morris lorry driven by a Tamil;

A European in a small Fiat;

Five Chinese bicyclists;

A squeaky taxi (naturally a Chevrolet);

high off blue

A high European official in a blue Morris Oxford;

Two Malay grooms on their masters’ ponies, both wearing Tom Mix hats and colored handkerchiefs round their necks (the riders I mean, of course);

A young Chinese lady cyclist;

Three little boys on wobbly bikes;

Another high official in a yellow Morris Oxford;

jowett high off

A peculiar car driven by a European (it looked like a Jowett);

Two motor busses racing, with about four true wheels between the pair of them;

A motor lorry full of rails;

A Police Officer in a rather noisy car;

Sikh bicycle

A Sikh trying to ride a bicycle (he fell off opposite me);

A sort of big packing case (I think they call it a gharry) drawn by a pony about the size of a big collie dog;

Twenty four bicyclists;

Four more motor busses;

Another Baby Austin;

A led pony;

One more high official in a yellow Standard;

Austin 12 prince

A merchant prince in an Austin 12;

A lorry carrying something which is not usually mentioned in polite society;

Two more cyclists;

A bullock cart;

A Morgan;

Two more busses;

And as the five minutes finished – a motor ambulance.

Kuching streets

The above two pieces just give a superficial glance at the kinds of changes that took place over the course of a century, but they point to a fascinating topic, as the changes that they point to affected human lives in countless ways.