Foreigners captivated by the ease and maneuverability of tuk tuks, purchase their own and adapt them to their needs

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/15 15:28:39

Richard Ammerman sitting on his tuk tuk outside of his work place in Sanlitun. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Almost every day for the past four years, Richard Ammerman from the US drives into a small hutong in Beijing in a more modern version of a three-wheeler visiting his friends, buying groceries and picking up his girlfriend, just like a local hutong resident.

Quite immersed into the local Beijing life, Ammerman is the proud owner of a tuk tuk, a vehicle that evolved from the traditional Chinese three-wheelers that is popular among Beijing residents, especially in hutong areas.

"It's a very convenient and practical daily transportation vehicle in Beijing, and it's great for helping me explore and fit into the local life here," Ammerman said.

Many expats in China are trying their best to explore and live like locals, and more foreigners driving tuk tuks is a symbol that they are embracing the local life.

Qiuzhang's three-wheeler keys with the word "three-wheeler" in Chinese characters Photo: LI Hao/GT


Qiuzhang drives his three-wheeler in the hutong near his home. Photo: LI Hao/GT


Qiuzhang drives his three-wheeler in the hutong near his home. Photo: LI Hao/GT

Easy transportation

When Ammerman came to Beijing in 2012, he lived in the Xizhimen area and worked in Guomao. Therefore, he had to bike to the subway, and then once he got off at his stop, he would also have to bike to his office.

The whole route was exhausting and took up a lot of his time, so he began to try to figure out a better way.

One day he saw an abandoned tuk tuk lying on the road which was covered in dust and had flat tires.

"Even though it was in bad condition, it was love at first sight. It was so strange looking and looked so practical," Ammerman said. "I thought to myself that I had to have one of those."

He posted the photo of the mystery vehicle in different social platforms, and asked if anyone knew what it was and where he could get one. He got a second-hand tuk tuk that was in good condition for 4,000 yuan ($579) from two German expats.

"In the winter, it can shield snow and cold wind, and in the summer, you can press the button and lift the glass box," he said. "It's a convertible."

Tuk tuks can go around 40 kilometers an hour, and that is generally how fast a car can go in downtown Beijing.

"I don't go on the main roads; I just stay on the side roads, and as of now, there are no regulations against that," Ammerman said.

You never have to worry about traffic with the tuk tuk. You can just go between cars; there is usually enough space between cars in Beijing for scooters and tuk tuks to squeeze through. The drivers in Beijing are already used to that, he said.

Parking is easy. "As long as you don't take up any car spaces and don't block anyone, you can just park anywhere," Ammerman said.

However, Ammerman also reminded new drivers to be aware of safety concerns.

The first day he took his tuk tuk out, he had an accident.

There was a block of cement in the road and he clipped it with his tuk tuk, and it flipped over while he was still inside.

"I felt like an upside down hamster in a cage," he said.

Luckily, a group of strangers by the road got together and flipped the tuk tuk back over with him in it, and he was not hurt in the accident.

Richard Ammerman cleaning his tuk tuk. Photo: LI Hao/GT


Qiuzhang fixing his three-wheeler in the hutong while talking to curious locals Photo: LI Hao/GT

Exploring the hutong

Tuk tuks are also perfect for exploring the hutong and blending into local life.

"It's great to go around in the hutong and visit bars and restaurants, because it's small and quiet, which makes it a perfect fit for the hutong and not disturbing the lives of the people who live there," Ammerman said.

When he takes the tuk tuk into the hutong, he always gets a thumbs-up from the locals, and some people start to giggle because they think it's funny to see a foreigner drive a vehicle like this and they want to stop and talk to him.

Benjamin Heisler from the US, who goes by the Chinese name of Qiuzhang (the chief of the tribe), has lived in Beijing for 12 years and also owns a tuk tuk, but he prefers to call it a three-wheeler.

He got his first three-wheeler in 2009 when he was trying to sell hot chocolate at a local temple fair, and he needed a vehicle to move staff around.

"It caused a stir at the temple fair when the locals saw a foreigner driving a three-wheeler. It was a very new sight," Qiuzhang said.

He thinks that one of the reasons why he fits into the local life in Beijing so well and so many people find him interesting, is the fact that he owns a three-wheeler.

"It's a great way to explore the hutong, especially at night. The hutong is more interesting at night. It's quiet and mysterious," he said.

"I've taken many of my foreigner friends to explore the hutong on my three-wheeler. One of my director friends from Italy even shot a music video in the hutong sitting on my three-wheeler," he said.

Being a teacher, Qiuzhang also uses the three-wheeler to take his students to the Gulou area to meet foreigners, learn different languages and play with them.

Customized to suit your needs

Qiuzhang also made some improvements to his three-wheeler to make it cool and unique.

After he got his first three-wheeler, he gave it a fresh paint job and added a radio system.  After his first three-wheeler was stolen, he got another one in 2013.

It was an abandoned three-wheeler that was not in working condition, so he fixed and improved it. It can be propelled by both pedals or electricity, and it is still undergoing more customization.

Although tuk tuks do not require a license plate, Ammerman saw an opportunity to make a joke out of his license plate. Ammerman works for Jing A Taproom, which is named after car plate number in Beijing, so he added a plate that says Jing A 8888 to his tuk tuk.

Ammerman even uses his tuk tuk to move kegs. 

"We tap the keg, open the trunk and have some beer. It's a moving party," he said.

Some of Ammerman's friends also purchased tuk tuks over the past few years, and some have even made crazy changes. 

"My friend Andy, who opened a sausage restaurant, decorated his tuk tuk with pink fur, and made it look like a fuzzy pig," Ammerman said.

Ammerman said if he moves back to the US someday, he will figure out how to ship one of these back there.

"Three-wheelers belong to laobeijing (Beijing in old times), and old things should not just be abandoned and replaced by new things," Qiuzhang said.

"You can make the changes yourself, and make it fit in modern life while still keeping tradition. I like an old Chinese saying, 'three years as new things, three years as old things; with patches, it can last three more years,'" he said.

Newspaper headline: Riding in style


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