Original film title in Malay: Penarek Becha
Literal English translation of film title: Trishaw Puller
Directed by P. Ramlee
Written by P. Ramlee
Starring: P. Ramlee, Saadiah, Salleh Kamil
Produced by Malay Film Productions (Shaw Bros.)
Queen Elizabeth Walk (Esplanade Park), Anderson Bridge
Junction of Ceylon Road and East Coast Road
Shophouses along East Coast Road (including a Cold Storage “sub-branch” at No. 103/105 East Coast Road)
Joo Chiat Police Station
Shophouses at junction of Balestier Road and Jalan Kemaman
Kampong in a coconut plantation?
Oil palm plantation?
The story of P. Ramlee’s debut directorial effort Penarek Becha centers on the forbidden relationship between a noble but poor trishaw-puller (P. Ramlee) and the kind daughter (Saadiah) of a smug, condescending rich man. Set in then-contemporary Singapore (mid-1950s; the city was on the cusp of self-governance), the melodramatic film offers a critique of the values and attitudes of the wealthy and the elite, and draws attention to the plight of the lower classes in the society.
The film opens distinctly with scenes of urban Singapore, first in the downtown area – the clock tower of Victoria Memorial Hall, Anderson Bridge and a panoramic shot of the Esplanade Park (Queen Elizabeth Walk) – before cutting to scenes shot in the vicinity of the Katong/Joo Chiat area. There, a newspaper boy peddles newspapers on the move along Ceylon Road, makes a turn at the junction with East Coast Road (where 328 Katong Laksa is today), picks up pace and begins running down East Coast Road, waving the newspaper sheets in the air to attract buyers. He passes a Cold Storage outlet (its Katong “retail sub-depot” [as named in newspaper ads from the 1920s], or “sub-branch” [in ads from the 1950s]).
This ‘running newspaper boy’ sequence is but a lead-in to introduce the key characters of the film: the miserly rich man and the noble trishaw-puller. The rich man calls for a trishaw in front of a shophouse (No. 111 East Coast Road; Cold Storage was at No. 103/105) and P. Ramlee’s character’s trishaw stops for him opposite the Joo Chiat Police Station. This sets up the first encounter between the main protagonist and antagonist, a precursor to the many animosities to come later in the movie.
The choice of Joo Chiat for such an encounter to take place in the film is fitting, and does represent what it was really like in the past. Joo Chiat was indeed an area where trishaws were regularly used as public transportation (especially by housewives and students), from the immediate post-war period in the late 1940s until their eventual demise in the late 1980s, early ‘90s. The Japanese first introduced trishaws to Singapore during the Occupation, and the boom time was between 1945 and 1947. There were as many as 10,000 trishaws plying the streets in Singapore then. Contrary to what was depicted in Penarek Becha, trishaw-pullers were predominantly Chinese (Hokkien especially). In 1959, when the People’s Action Party was in government, trishaw-pullers even had to don “uniforms”, consisting of a light blue shirt with matching dark blue trousers. One of the last trishaw repair shops in the late 1980s, family-run Chop Hock Sin Hin 福新兴, which now focuses on selling bicycles, was also located in Joo Chiat (No. 414 Joo Chiat Road), just round the corner from where the above-mentioned scene in Penarek Becha was filmed.
Elsewhere in the film, the trishaw-puller Amran rescues Azizah, the rich’s man daughter, from a gang of bullies in front of the shophouses at the junction of Balestier Road and Jalan Kemaman, this being their first acquaintance that would lead to romance. (These ornately-decorated pre-war shophouses, designed by architect Kwan Yow Luen, have been restored in 2000, and gazetted as conserved buildings in 2003.) Later on, a kampong in a hilly coconut plantation, a beach (which we suspect to be Punggol beach), and an oil palm plantation are also featured, all of which their exact locations are as yet unidentified.
1. ‘Dying breed of riders in blue’. The Straits Times. 12 August 1981, p. 1.
2. ‘Business as usual, less old world charm: Joo Chiat’. The Straits Times. 28 October 1986, p. 21.
3. ‘Last of the red-hot trishaw repair shops’. The Straits Times. 7 September 1989, p. 8.
4. Rohayati Paseng Barnard, Timothy P. Barnard, ‘The Ambivalence of P. Ramlee: Penarek Beca and Bujang Lapok in Perspective’. Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2002.
5. Anderson Bridge. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2004.
6. The Esplanade. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2004.
7. Ceylon Road. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2004.
8. Joo Chiat. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2004.
© 1955 Malay Film Productions
© 2002 Music Valley
Digital Map Source:
Great Britain. Royal Air Force, Singapore photomap, National Library of Australia, MAP G8041.A4 s6 1950. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn502375]
© 2014 Toh Hun Ping