Central. It’s the early hours of a weekend morning. Revellers are pouring out of the clubs and bars in and around Lan Kwai Fong. The queue for taxis outside the Landmark stretches the length of the road up to the traffic lights.
A man rushes out from the queue. He staggers slightly, one hand outstretched towards a passing taxi that slowly glides alongside the waiting crowds. His other hand grasps a young woman who remains holding their place in line. “$500″ to mid-levels!”, he shouts. “I can pay US dollars… Renminbi? What do you want?”
The taxi driver ignores him and drives to the front of the queue. Having waited for nearly an hour in line I propped up the courage to speak my mind. “Taxis shouldn’t accept your offer. It’s against the law.” I hoped he also noted my implied criticism of his behaviour. “Just wait your turn”, I added.
The man glared at me. The woman didn’t even seem to be able to see me. There was no shame, rather indignation that I had come into his bubble. “Asshole”, I whispered under my breath. A few taxis later one stopped for that couple. In front of a long line of people who had queued patiently they got in to the cab and were driven away. The incident saddened me enormously, in the way it reflected on both the taxi driver who accepted the bribe and the couple who saw nothing in offering it, and the way everyone seemed blind to the way such behaviour could affect our relationship with one another. This was 10 years ago. And 10 years ago I could console myself that I had run in to a bad egg.
Today, whilst the majority of people wait patiently in line, the behaviour of the few, those lacking shame and a moral compass to consider others, who deal in and heed only the sweet words of money, have changed our relationship with the simple service provider that is the taxi driver. Today not even the law seems able to prevent taxi drivers cruising around Central for a bribe, their off duty signs ready to drop if the price is right.
Whilst this behaviour is not new, it is certainly more prevalent. Taxi drivers scouting out their preferred customer has become, for many, merely an accepted greivance of a late night out in Central. Drunks are not picked up, as they may be sick in the taxi. Long trips are also frowned upon, as several shorter trips around mid-levels are more profitable. Coloured people are also rejected. One sorry sight this New Years Eve was of a pair of Indian gentlemen at the front of a taxi queue being refused entry to taxis that were more than prepared to take other passengers. Perhaps they couldn’t offer to pay the premium the drivers expected for taking them home, a premium not for being drunk, but, as one shockingly honest driver once told me without a hint of shame, or being Indian and smelling wrong.
But before we curse the taxi driver, let us not forget it is the customer who first offered them the bribe who has defined this relationship. The taxi driver may break the law in accepting a bribe, but what about the passenger who offers to pay it? The taxi driver may be corrupted, but it the passenger who believes that money buys the right to jump the queue, to privilege treatment at the expense of others, who is the corrupting influence in this relationship.
It is also interesting to consider how this only seems to be a problem when trying to get a taxi in Central when the late night revelling begins to taper off. Taxis do not cruise for a pay off outside Che Kung temple at the height of ritual and festivity. Indeed, even on new years day revellers in Ma On Shan were not left to wander the streets seeking a cab with their bulging wallets on clear display. This behaviour is unique to Central and a certain culture parts of Central may, in the mind of taxi drivers, have come to represent. It is to a specific crowd that many taxi drivers have establish a new modus operandi. The driver lowers himself to the level of the perceived values of his clientele.
Of course, I would like to believe that the majority of people reject the values that underpin this behaviour. The majority of us will wait patiently in line, and believe it fair to pay only the metered rate. We don’t believe money should buy us the right to jump a queue, and to ignore others, and to override a natural sense of fair play. We understand the impact this has in defining our relationship with the taxi driver, and in a more general way our ability to relate to others as well. Most people I speak to feel quite strongly against the way many taxi drivers have come to operate in Central.
And yet we also happily make these faustian pacts in other aspects of our lives. We argue for and buy into private health care that allows us to jump another queue; we happily pay for private education that is less elite in what it offers than elitist in the advantage it purports to sell. We do not question anymore whether just because it may be profitable it need not be right, as when our banks offer the better deals to those for who such marginal differences mean less. We allow money to all too often define our relationships, and to shape what it is we see and are blind to notice.
What can be done about those taxi drivers cruising for a fat bonus? We could enforce the law, run a campaign to shame them for acting not only illegally but so immorally too. But perhaps we should also begin to think how best to tackle this problem at it’s moral root. Put money back in to perspective. To do this would mean acknowledging that passengers have played a part in defining this relationship. It would also mean looking seriously at what it is about Central, and this particularly crowd of revellers, that led to this relationship arising. But I fear these are questions we would rather not ask.
(Photo: By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27963271)