“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.
For about 15 years, the Civic and the Accord were untouchable in the American marketplace; Honda sold all they could build here plus as many as they could import under the limitations of the Voluntary Export Restraint agreement of 1981. Then… well, Soichiro Honda died and Honda sort of lost its way. Sure, their cars were still good, but the competition had caught up and the Honda magic had worn off for American car buyers. Honda car sales in Japan had never been so great, so what kept Honda going through the lean times? Two-wheelers! I spent two weeks in Vietnam last month and came away with a new appreciation for Honda’s utter dominance of the Asian motorbike market.
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