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Tracks in the City: Technology, mobility and society in colonial Rangoon and Singapore

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 December 2011

Department of History, Manchester Metropolitan University, Rosamond St West, Manchester M15 6LL Email:


Around the turn of the twentieth century, electric tramways made their appearance in the cities of Asia, but despite being a universal technology, and despite the considerable impact they had upon life in these cities, the history of tramways in Asia has hardly ever been studied. Trams, wherever they ran, mobilized the urban population to a degree unseen before—their track network could restructure the urban topography and re-evaluate its segments, as independent villages became suburbs and residential quarters rose or fell in status, and add to the segregation of workplaces and residential areas. The two cities of Singapore and Rangoon, which have been selected because of their comparability, provide two contrasting examples of how trams functioned and eventually failed in an Asian urban environment.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 Tinker, Hugh, The Foundations of Local Self-Government in India, Pakistan and Burma (London: Athlone, 1954)Google Scholar.

2 The first commercial operations in India to have electricity installed were a tea factory in Darjeeling (1893), jute mills in the surroundings of Kolkata (1890s), and the notorious Kolar gold mines in Karnataka. See Frasch, Tilman, ‘Empowering the City. Indische Städte und Elektrizität, ca. 1880–1920’, in Ahuja, Ravi and Brosius, Christiane (eds), Megastädte in Indien (Heidelberg: Draupadi, 2005), pp. 3546Google Scholar.

3 Straits Times, 8 March 1906, p. 1.

4 This becomes very clear in contemporary descriptions of the trams, where terms such as ‘modern’ or ‘up to date’ are frequently used. See, for example, Singapore Free Press, 14 August 1905, p. 5; 17 January 1906, p. 6 (on Bangkok); and 15 August 1906, p. 1.

5 McKay, John P., Tramways and Trolleys: The Rise of Urban Mass Transport Systems in Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976)Google Scholar. This seminal work includes numerous case-studies for individual countries or cities, which often take a comparative approach. See also M. D. Reilly, ‘Urban Electrical Railway Management and Operation in Britain and America, 1900–1914’, Urban History Yearbook 1989, pp. 22–37; or Ward, David, ‘A Comparative Historical Geography of Streetcar Suburbs in Boston, Mass., and Leeds, England, 1850–1920’, in Emsley, Clive (ed.), Essays in Comparative History: Economy, Politics and Society in Britain and America (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1984), pp. 237–56Google Scholar.

6 For Burma, Pearn, B. Reginald, A History of Rangoon (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press, 1939), pp. 278–79Google Scholar; for Singapore, Turnbull, Mary S., A History of Singapore, 1819–1977 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 115Google Scholar; for Delhi, Gupta, Narayani, Delhi between Two Empires, 1803–1931 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 137Google Scholar. Only the case of Bombay has received greater attention recently: see Pierre Lanthier, ‘L'électrification de Bombay avant 1920. Le projet de Jamsetji N. Tata’, Outre-mers: Revue d'histoire, 334–335 (1), 2002, pp. 211–34.

7 The exceptions are two companies in Mumbai and Kolkata, both of which still exist. There is a semi-official company history of the Bombay Electricity and Supply Company: Mahaluxmivala, P. D., The History of the Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Co. Ltd., 1905–35 (Bombay: BES&T, 1936)Google Scholar, and a study of the business of the Calcutta tramway company, focusing on its workforce: Mitra, Sisir, A Public Facility, its Management and the Workers: A Case Study of the Calcutta Tramways 1939–1975 (Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1980)Google Scholar. In addition, abstracts of the companies’ histories are included on their respective websites: <> and <>, [accessed 30 September 2011].

8 York, Fred W. and Phillips, A. R., Singapore: A History of its Trams, Trolleybuses and Buses, Vol. 1: 1880s to 1960s (Croydon: CTS, 1996)Google Scholar; Sechler, Robert P., Electric Traction in the Burmese Capital: A History of the Rangoon Electric Tramway and Supply Company Ltd, Mimeograph, Los Angeles, 2000Google Scholar.

9 Quotation marks should be automatically assumed whenever the words ‘native’ and ‘coolie’ are used throughout this paper.

10 For Burma's economic transformation, see Adas, Michael, The Burma Delta: Economic Development and Social Change on an Asian Rice Frontier, 1852–1941 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974)Google Scholar. Its impact on land use in colonial Rangoon is described by Spate, Oskar H. K. and Trueblood, L. W., ‘Rangoon: A Study in Urban Geography’, Geographical Review, 9 (1), 1942, pp. 5673CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially Figure 9 on p. 63.

11 Nathan, J. E. (ed.) The Census of British Malaya, 1921 (London: Waterlow & Sons, 1922), pp. 3839Google Scholar.

12 The Indian population of Rangoon continued to grow steadily during the first decades of the twentieth century, reaching a maximum of almost 60 per cent of the total population in the 1920s, before the effects of the Great Depression, combined with anti-Indian riots in the late 1930s, reduced their number significantly. For a contemporary account, see Rao, Narayana, Indian Labour in Burma (Madras: Keshari, 1933)Google Scholar. An assessment of the migrant force from Andhra can be found in Satyanarayana, Adapa, ‘Birds of Passage’: Migration of South Indian Labour Communities to Southeast Asia, 19th–20th Centuries, CLARA Working Papers 11. (Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History, 2001)Google Scholar.

13 York and Phillips, Singapore, pp. 9–13.

14 For their history, see Dobbs, Stephen, The Singapore River: A Social History (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

15 York and Phillips, Singapore, p. 12. See ‘Letter to the Editor’, Straits Times, 29 March 1892, p. 4, which complains about sparks, soot, and terrifying noises.

16 Sechler, Electric Traction, pp. 5–6, 51–53.

17 Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1899–1900 (Rangoon: British Burma Press, 1900), p. 32; Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1905–1906 (Rangoon: Times Press, 1906), p. 18. See also Pearn, A History, pp. 278–79.

18 Straits Times, 25 July 1905, p. 6.

19 Letter from the Singapore Electric Tramways Company to Municipal Commissioners, Proceedings of the Municipal Commission, 2 June 1904, Singapore National Archives, item 635.

20 For a detailed description of the Singapore Electric Tramways Company's tracks and rolling stock, see Anonymous, ‘Singapore Electric Tramways’, Light Railway and Tramway Journal, 19, 1908, pp. 40–45.

21 In 1896, the Governor inspected the first motorcar imported to Singapore (Straits Times, 22 August 1896, p. 5), and in early 1899, one of five more cars that had been recently imported from France was spotted driving along the Esplanade (Straits Times, 20 February 1899, p. 4).

22 The opposition to electrified street transport in Singapore did not differ much from that seen, for instance, in American cities. See Schatzberg, Eric, ‘Culture and Technology in the City: Opposition to Mechanized Street Transportation in Late Nineteenth-Century America’, in Allen, Michael T. and Hecht, Gabrielle (eds), Technologies of Power: Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 5794Google Scholar. Of course, the social structure of the protesters differed widely. For a broader perspective on the mixture of admiration and anxiety with which modern technologies were regularly perceived when they made their first appearance, see Rieger, Bernhard, ‘“Modern Wonders”: Technological Innovation and Public Ambivalence in Britain and Germany, 1890s to 1933’, History Workshop Journal, 55, 2003, pp. 152–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 For their history, see Warren, James, Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

24 There are numerous reports in the pages of the local press about rickshaw-pullers tried and fined by the Police Court, see Straits Times, 4 July 1905, p. 4; and 29 August 1905, pp. 5, 8; Straits Echo, 1 July 1905.

25 Straits Times, 12 July 1905, p. 4; Straits Echo, 1 July 1905, p. 4; and 17 May 1905, p. 5.

26 Straits Times, 16 August 1905, p. 8.

27 For the tramway fares, see York and Phillips, Singapore, pp. 20, 29–30.

28 Sechler, Electric Traction, p. 17.

29 The Singapore Electric Tramways Company similarly recorded full carriages during the races: see Straits Times, 23 October 1905, p. 2.

30 Sechler, Electric Traction, p. 62.

31 Singapore Free Press, 11 October 1909, p. 2.

32 Straits Times, 29 March 1892, p. 4.

33 Singapore Free Press, 13 June 1906, p. 6. After 1905, a number of hotels such as the Sea View Hotel opened along Singapore's (old) east coast, referring in their adverts to both the easy transport connections from the tramway terminus and the ‘modern facilities’ they offered such as electric fans and lighting. See Singapore Free Press, 30 May and 6 June 1906, p. 2; Straits Times, 1 March 1910, p. 2.

34 The smaller numbers were due to the fact that the rickshaw coolies of Rangoon were mostly Indians who had come to Burma to undertake all sorts of menial work, but not necessarily for rickshaw-pulling. See Andrew, E. J. L., Indian Labour in Rangoon (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 611Google Scholar.

35 The figure for 1913, as stated in the Financial Times, 10 June 1914, p. 4, appears to be a misprint for 14,074 million.

36 Sechler, Electric Traction, p. A–4.

37 Singapore Free Press, 11 January 1907, p. 5.

38 Singapore Free Press, 13 March 1907, p. 5.

39 Singapore Free Press, 22 December 1908, p. 9.

40 Singapore Free Press, 15 May 1909, p. 6. This ‘Letter to the Editor’ points out the danger of accidents as students from the Raffles Institution were seen climbing on the railings of moving trams.

41 Complaints concerned, among other things, smoking on the cars and the lack of proper window shields to protect against the rain: see Straits Times, 14 December 1905, p. 5; and 19 December 1905, p. 5.

42 See, for example, Singapore Free Press, 5 August 1905, p. 4; 8 August 1905, p. 5; and 12 August 1905, p. 4. For the last mentioned, see the General Manager's (Mr Tandy) reply in Straits Times, 16 August 1905, p. 4. All accidents were duly recorded in the annual reports of the Singapore municipality.

43 Singapore Free Press, 5 August 1905, p. 5; 11 July 1907; and 25 May 1908, p. 6.

44 Singapore Free Press, 24 August 1905, p. 8; and 16 July 1907, p. 6. Also see the letters in Straits Times, 9 September 1905, p. 5, and 12 September 1905, p. 5.

45 Makepeace, Walter et al. (eds), One Hundred Years of Singapore (London: Murray, 1921), Vol. 2, p. 362Google Scholar.

46 In Bombay, an additional issue came up with the question of how many people were allowed to sit on the cross-benches of the tram (Frank Conlon, personal communication, July 2010). Although there were also cross-benches in Singapore cars, this was seemingly no problem, pehaps because the tramway by-laws passed by the municipality prescribed a maximum number of passengers per car and so the number of passengers per bench.

47 Singapore Free Press, 13 July 1907, p. 1. A similar accusation was submitted to the Straits Times, 27 October 1905, p. 5. The author of this letter claimed that the natives ‘love the sight of a European unable to get into a [full] car’, and demanded a differentiation be made between Europeans and native passengers so that the popularity of the trams would not come at the expense of the Europeans’ prestige. This sparked further letters to the editor in which this view was heavily criticized.

48 York and Phillips, Singapore, p. 20. In addition, further dividing the fares into sections of the route made the tramway journey both complicated and expensive.

49 Straits Times, 9 September 1905, p. 5; 27 October 1905, p. 5; and 30 October 1905, p. 5.

50 Straits Times, 18 July 1906, p. 4.

51 For this movement, see Kiong, Wong Sin, ‘The Chinese Boycott: A Social Movement in Singapore and Malaya in the Early 20th Century’, Southeast Asian Studies, 36 (2), 1998, pp. 230–53Google Scholar. The actions of the followers of the movement, which had an anti-American thrust but occasionally affected British-run companies such as the Singapore Electric Tramways Company as well, received much attention in the local press: see Straits Times, 11 December 1905, p. 5; Penang Straits Echo, 28 December 1905, p. 4.

52 Straits Times, 1 March 1906, p. 4 (a quarrel between a European and a Chinese concerning sitting in the front row); 24 January 1907, p. 8 (European manhandling a Chinese passenger); and 8 February 1907, p. 8 (report of the trial in the law court).

53 Singapore Free Press, 17 August 1908, p. 5.

54 Straits Times, 8 March 1906, p. 4. Before the First World War, the municipal reports normally contained maps showing the development of the grid in downtown Singapore. For published versions, see Public Utilities Board (ed.), Yesterday and Today. The Story of Public Electricity, Water and Gas Supplies in Singapore (Singapore: Public Utilities Board, 1985), p. 23, and Singapore Municipality (ed.), Opening of St. James Power Station on November 7, 1927 (Singapore: 1927), Appendix A.

55 Financial Times, 19 November 1908, p. 8; and 3 June 1914, p. 5 (reports of the annual meeting for the previous year).

56 The new contract came into effect in January 1913 (Financial Times, 14 May 1913, p. 6). Its result—increased electrical output bringing about reduced revenues for the company—was critically addressed by shareholders on several instances: see, for example, Financial Times, 10 June 1914, p. 4; and 20 June 1917, p. 5, as the company paid only small or no dividends at all for most of the time.

57 At the General Meeting in June 1917, Sir Frank Swettenham [the Chairman of the Singapore Electric Tramways Company] complained that ‘we feel that the Municipal Commissioners are treating the company with less than justice in holding us to a scale of rates which was framed without regard to war prices. . .’ in Straits Times, 30 July 1917, p. 10.

58 After long deliberations and much public debate, the commissioners had decided to acquire the gasworks in April 1899 and received the sanction from the Governor of the Straits Settlements in early 1900: see Straits Times, 26 April 1899, p. 4; Proceedings of the Singapore Municipal Commission, Ordinary Meeting, 14 February 1900, Singapore National Archives. For the history of the gasworks, see Public Utilities Board, Yesterday and Today, pp. 27–36.

59 Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1916 (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1917), p. 8; Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1918, p. 8; Proceedings of the Singapore Municipal Commission, Joint Meeting of the Financial Purposes and Sanitary Committees, 7 January 1916, Singapore National Archives. At the same time, the Rangoon municipality came to an agreement with the Rangoon Electric Tramway Company to pay a fixed rate per lamp (rather than per unit consumed) in return for switching off the lamps during certain hours of the night: see Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1917–18 (Rangoon: British Burma Press, 1918), p. 6.

60 Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1918, p. 10; Proceedings of the Singapore Municipal Commission, Joint Meeting of the Financial Purposes and Sanitary Committees, 9 February 1917 and 20 July 1917, Singapore National Archives.

61 Proceedings of the Singapore Municipal Commission, General Committee Meeting, 8 February 1918, Singapore National Archives.

62 Report of the Registrar of Hackneys etc., Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1908 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1909), p. 2.

63 See, for example, Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1919 (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1920) p. 13.

64 Proceedings of the Singapore Municipal Commission, Ordinary Meeting, 24 January 1919, Singapore National Archives.

65 Proceedings and Report of the Commission Appointed to Inquire as to whether the Public are or are not Being Afforded the Full Benefit of the Tramways (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1921), pp. 15–16.

66 Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1922 (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1923), p. 10. For the story of the St James power station, see the brochure printed to commemorate its opening: Singapore Municipality (ed.), Opening of St. James Power Station, p. 1–4.

67 Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1921 (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1922), p. 9; Report of the Municipal Engineer, Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1925 (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1926), p. 7–F.

68 The London Gazette, 24 April 1925, p. 2788. Swettenham's role remains to be further explored, the more so since his involvement in the company is not mentioned by his most recent biographer: see Barlow, Henry S., Swettenham (Kuala Lumpur: Southdene, 1995)Google Scholar. While Governor of the Straits Settlements, Swettenham agreed to the electrification of Singapore, but claimed that the municipality did not have sufficient funds to build a power station, thus forcing the municipality to grant a concession to a private company. See ‘Address by HE Governor Frank Swettenham to the Legislative Council, 10 October 1902’, in Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements, p. 113. In 1904, he prematurely resigned from office on health grounds, only to assume the post of chairman of the Singapore Electric Tramways Company immediately thereafter.