When you take a Hong Kong taxi, especially at night, be prepared for a hustle
Feng Chi-shun says cabbies understand why they are an unpopular lot, but their behaviour can be justified, especially on the riskier night shift
Reports say there has been a fivefold increase in taxi complaints over the past 11 years. I am willing to bet most are against night-shift drivers.
Over the years, I have talked to hundreds of them. Although I do not condone their nefarious practices, I know where they are coming from. Driving a taxi at night involves a certain amount of risk. Apart from customer violence and inebriation, there are common incidents of non-payment, such as when triad members or drunk, burly men simply refuse to pay, or when a sober individual opens the door at a red light and dashes off into the darkness, or (I'm not making this up) when a woman claims she has no money but is willing to "take it out in trade" in the backseat.
With risks come rewards: the hours are shorter, and the money is better. A night-shift driver needs to be a risk-taker, a hustler and a little roguish.
Weekends and festive nights, thunderstorms and typhoons are occasions when he can make a killing by demanding a surcharge. He can always justify not taking any customer by claiming, for example, he is about to go home. But if you double the fare, he is willing to delay his supper.
Hustling is hard work. It also evokes the ire of clients, who have unpredictable reactions. Taxi drivers are the most hated group of blue-collar workers, and they know it. They may not feel good about themselves, but they are compensated by making an extra HK$1,000 or so (that's what I heard) per shift on any given night when taxis are in demand. Since there are quite a few of those nights each month, the extra money can add up, to make the non-hustlers among them green with envy.
The surcharge breaks the law, but the chance of getting caught is slim, and the penalties are not severe.
Such drivers are not exactly robbing the poor; grass-roots citizens seldom take taxis. People who can afford HK$100 for a single drink in Lan Kwai Fong or Wan Chai should be ready to pay the same amount extra to get them home as soon as possible.
Hustling for a surcharge is not new; it's been part of the Hong Kong taxi industry almost as long as Lion Rock has been there. I don't expect it to end any time soon, and I am resigned to it.
I predict Uber will never take off in Hong Kong because of the legal implications. And the current high cost and monopoly of taxi licences will ensure a political bombshell if it is allowed to do business. Other mobile apps for hire cars are useless when you need them the most.
I use other forms of public transport as much as I can, and hope that if enough people do the same, taxi drivers will beg us for business at a discount. If l use a taxi, I am ready to be hustled. I pay up, put up and shut up.
Dr Feng Chi-shun is a retired pathologist and author