Notes From the Back Seat – in Taxis Across China

by Nathan James Thomas

It’s almost impossible to remain dry in Hong Kong.

You either get caught in a tropical monsoon, or the humidity makes you drench yourself with sweat.

It helps if you catch a cab.

The air conditioning keeps you in a cozy daze as you somehow dodge your way around trams, buses and tourists.

But across the border and into mainland China, a taxi ride is a life or death gamble.

Out of the airport in Shanghai and through the industrial streets of Pudong, you feel yourself lost in a planet of soot and steel. There are no landmarks. Your GPS has stopped working. The driver changes lanes wildly, hooting like a lunatic. You try and fasten your seatbelt. It doesn’t work. An hour later you spill out, legs shaking, and pay the driver who then zooms off to find another victim.

Macau, like Hong Kong, speaks Cantonese rather than Mandarin and plays more or less by its own rules. A city of casinos and malls, we managed to escape the sickeningly shallow centre and dine at the restaurant of an old Portuguese man who’d been living in the city for over forty years.

As we ate Octopus salad and fish and drank the house Sangria, the owner sat with his grizzled, tanned friends and chatted happily in Portuguese. The place was small and cool, right by the sea, and outside stores hung strips of fish out to dry.

Stepping into the sun, we saw a cab pull recklessly up to the curb. We waved at the driver. “Ok, get in.” We got in, but he got out, and made a mad dash to somewhere out of sight. We sat there, alone, for about four minutes, until the driver returned. He was holding a white package in his hand about the size of two bricks, and grinning maniacally.

“Ok, where to?”
We hooned off back to the hotel, but quickly realized that this wasn’t the way we’d came.
The meter was climbing ever higher, and we started to get a bit concerned.
“Hey…” I started to talk, but then we abruptly stopped in the middle of the road. Another taxi had pulled up beside us. The drivers were grinning at each other and giggling. Out driver picked up the mysterious white package from the passenger seat, and threw it to his friend in the other taxi. The giggling grew louder and the second taxi zoomed away. Our driver turned around and stared at us
“Where to again?”

If you can’t find a taxi on the street in the middle of town, it helps if you stride purposefully towards the nearest posh hotel, and insert yourself into their taxi queue. Do this with an air of confidence and, if in Asia, try to look as confused, foreign and ridiculous as you can, and no one will question it.

Outside some fancy monstrosity in Macau, the concierge unctuously led us towards a waiting cab. Our map had only English and Portuguese. The concierge spoke only Mandarin. The driver spoke only Cantonese. When the concierge tried to speak to the driver in Mandarin – the language of mainland China – the driver snapped at him and snarled in Cantonese ‘are you speaking Chinese? Speak Cantonese, you’re in Macau!” Somehow we ended up more or less where we wanted to be.

This dialect issue extends not only to the ‘Special Administrative Regions’ of Macau and Hong Kong, but also across the mainland. There seems to be a law that states Chinese taxi drivers should speak only their own local dialect, and should under no circumstances speak ‘Putonghua,’ the common language.

As a student in Chengdu, I had to practice stating the address of my university not in the smooth, round, syllables of Mandarin, but in a sort of Sichuanese slur that was music to the ears of the driving classes.

Only in Beijing can you be guaranteed a taxi driver who speaks Mandarin. This isn’t because Beijing taxi drivers are more educated or cosmopolitan than others, it’s simply because Mandarin is a northern dialect of Chinese, so little different from the natural way Beijing locals speak. They do, however, have the disconcerting habit of adding about fifteen ‘R’s to the end of every word, lending the impression that you’re talking to an intrepid pirate who has merely incidentally wound up as a capital city taxi driver.

The lawlessness of mainland China can be a positive, if you’re willing to take advantage of it. One of the greatest experiences a visitor to China can have is to sit in the back of a taxi, sipping on a beer and touring the streets, whilst the driver chain smokes Zhongnanhai cigarettes and interrogates you in his local dialect.
“Where are you from?”
“New Zealand.”
“Oh, Milk!”
“My cousin went to New Zealand”
“To do what?”
“I don’t know. New Zealand is next to England, right?”

In Hong Kong, the drivers don’t ask questions. They still speak only their own language, but unlike those in the mainland they’ve developed a knack for understanding the English or mispronounced Chinese names for every place in the city.

As you sit in the back, entranced by the cool air, they’ll suddenly begin speaking. “Pardon me?” They’ll ignore you, and keep talking. You realize they’re simply on the phone, holding it up to their ear with their right hand, and driving you with their left. You sink back into your seat, and wait until you arrive.





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