No Fixed Abode: Marsupial Adventures of the Kapchai
“The kapchai menace must be stopped.” The fellow who shared that particular opinion in a major Malaysian newspaper will no doubt find that many people agree with him. I can see his point; after spending much of the last two weeks driving across Malaysia and Thailand I have come to loathe the sight of the things.
There is no gap in Kuala Lumpur’s molasses-like traffic so small that it will not immediately be filled with a swarm of the little motorcycles. Every lane change has to be accompanied by a constant iguana-eye monitoring of all four sides of one’s automobile lest it inadvertently lead to manslaughter — or worse yet, family-slaughter, since it’s common to see up to four people crowded onto a kapchai‘s thinly padded seat.
Yet the kapchai is the sole “mobility option” for millions of low-income people across Southeast Asia. The very best of them, the bad-ass 100-mph five-speed Yamahas and Hondas in their Repsol or Petronas liveries, cost about $2,100 brand new. The rest of them can be seen at roadside dealers in serviceable condition for between $300 and $500. Adjusted for local currency, they’re about the cost of a hundred meals sold by a roadside vendor. Imagine that you could solve your personal transportation needs for the cost of a hundred Big Macs, and you can easily see the appeal. If you then use the kapchai for a little smash-and-grab urban robbery, as many people do, it pays for itself very quickly. If you don’t… well, the operating costs are still very low.
I’d guess that about 95 percent of you are now asking yourselves, “So what exactly is a kapchai, anyway?” The best way to understand it: the kapchai is a kangaroo, and the kapchai is also a Toyota SUV. I’ll explain, of course.
To begin with, a kapchai is not a scooter, although it’s also not not a scooter, if you catch my drift. The name ‘kapchai’ is Chinese slang for “little Cub”, the cub in this particular case being the Honda Super Cub. The Super Cub was not a conventional scooter, although it had enclosed bodywork like the scooters of the time. It was, strictly speaking, an “underbone” motorcycle that mounted its single-cylinder powerplant beneath its single large frame tube. Its wheels were relatively large and it offered motorcycle-style footpegs instead of a flat floor.
The greater control and improved ride offered by those differences made the “kapchai” popular on the rutted and crowded roads of Southeast Asia. By the Eighties, the underbone motorcycle was a genre to itself there. In the past few decades, the performance and capability of these little bikes have gradually increased to the point where some of them would acquit themselves reasonably well here in the United States. The best and brightest kapchai now offer hand clutches and close-ratio transmissions to go with their impressive disc brakes and upside-down forks. There’s a major race class for them — the Petronas Cub Cup — and a club-level kapchai series for people on tighter budgets. The market ecosystem of these fundamentally indestructible, easily field-serviceable bikes works well for Malaysia; the new ones are bought by ambitious young people and over time they filter down to the families that are just getting by.
Heading north out of Kuala Lumpur towards the border with Thailand, you see the kapchai aging and rusting, moving more slowly, carrying more families in headscarves and fewer sharp-dressed teenagers in Valentino Rossi jackets. Once across that border, however, the kapchai mostly disappear. Yeah, you see a nontrivial number in service, but they’re mostly attached to homemade sidecars, carrying fruit to market and children to school. The all-purpose transportation role that they play in Malaysia is filled in Thailand by scooters.
In many cases, these scooters are kissing cousins to kapchai from the same manufacturers. Yamaha’s SMAX scooter features about the same performance envelope as the YZ15R kapchai, but it’s a flat-foot vehicle with a centrifugal clutch. The Chinese makers, too, offer the same basic mechanical package in both kapchai and scooter formats; one for south of the border and one for north of it. The question is: why?
Thailand has more dirt roads than Malaysia; it should prefer the bigger wheel. Highway speeds are lower, but in both cases they are well above what a 150cc bike can do; I regularly saw four-wheeled traffic running at over 100mph in both countries. Yet by the time you reach Hua Hin the kapchai are nonexistent, supplanted by angular-faced, Transformers-styled scooters.
Also present and accounted for on the Thai roads: the class of small-scale motorcycles represented by the Honda MSX125 “Grom” and Kawasaki Z125 Pro in the United States. They’re novelty bikes here but in Thailand they carry families on the freeway; at one point I saw two adult women, a teenaged girl, and a toddler crammed onto a single Honda Grom, flat out in top gear and passing fruit trucks on the road shoulder. There’s also a moderate contingent of 250cc motorcycles, most commonly the Yamaha R25 — which is simply a tamer version of my wife’s 320cc Yamaha R3 sportbike. While I occasionally saw a 250cc bike in Malaysia, the Grom-type motorcycles are entirely absent.
Over the past week, I’ve concocted any number of theories for this disparity between motorcycle ecosystems, ranging from media influence to the rate at which Honda dealerships appeared on the main highways of Thailand in the Seventies and Eighties. Turns out that I needn’t have looked any further than the tax and tariff tables. Both Malaysia and Thailand extract a heavy penalty on motorcycle imports from other Asian countries, but Malaysia has been playing the game longer. When the Japanese manufacturers set up their Malaysian operations, the “underbone” bikes were already reasonably popular so that’s what they built, starting a trend that never changed. The Thai factories were set up afterwards, and in the case of Yamaha and Honda they were also intended to make products from export consumption. My wife’s Yamaha R3 was built in Thailand. If you have a Honda Grom in the States, it was made in Thailand. That’s why Groms are popular in Thailand but not in Malaysia; they’d be 25 to 40 percent more expensive than a Malaysian kapchai of similar technical merit.
Which brings us to the Ford Expedition. The slot filled by the Expedition and Tahoe in the United States is filled by the Toyota Fortuner in Southeast Asia. The Fortuner is basically a Hilux with a cap on it. An Expedition would be a much better choice. But the Expedition incurs significant tariff penalties due to its engine size and country of origin. So everybody sticks with their Fortuners. The way they stick with kapchai, or Groms.
I’m not anti-tariff, not by a long shot. In circumstances where externally sourced items have an unfair advantage — due to currency manipulation, let’s say, or a complete lack of environmental regulation in the exporting country — I think a well-chosen tariff can go a long way to restore the balance. When you have tariffs with no clear purpose, however, you get marsupial populations of vehicles that have grown up without any competition. They become easy prey for a future in which those barriers are relaxed, the same way that “imported” cats are wreaking havoc on Australia’s wildlife. The solution to problems like that can be unpleasant, to say the least. As our President and his administration consider the next steps in trade relations with the EU and elsewhere, I hope he moves both cautiously and judiciously.
Could we use a little protection from low-cost labor and environmental-nightmare production? Absolutely. Do we want to be like Malaysia, trapped beneath the underbone? I think not.
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