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#SoHongKong

Meet Hong Kong’s happiest taxi driver William Wong ... and sign his guestbook

William Wong is trying to alter the city’s perception of its cabbies, advising other drivers to remain positive and not refuse to take passengers where they want to go

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 6:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 3:17pm

As taxi driver William Wong flicks through the pages of the guestbooks he has collected over the past four years, he can’t help but smile at some of the messages. “A true professional who brings joy to his customers”, reads one. “Thank you for such a wonderful and positive idea,” says another.

The red cab driver, who turns 68 this month, is trying to buck the city’s reputation for bad-tempered cabbies with his collection of guestbooks, which he keeps in his car for passengers to sign. For him, it’s a way to connect with people, preserve memories and improve drivers’ image among locals and tourists.

One of the notes reads, “You’re the best driver. Thank you!” Wong chuckles. “The books make me very happy. Most people see them and say, ‘Wow! So great, an amazing idea.’ I’ve never heard of any other drivers doing the same thing … Hong Kong taxi drivers have such a bad image.”

The idea for the books began in 1996, when he went travelling around Europe. “I saw all the restaurants and hotels had books for customers to sign and write something. When I came back to Hong Kong, I thought, ‘Why can’t I have a book in my taxi?’ But it was only in 2013 that I started to do it. Now I have 10 books.”

Progress was slow at first. He found that locals were curious, yet weren’t interested in signing the books, which hung from the back of the front seat, with a pen and a note from Wong on the cover inviting passengers to sign. “In the beginning, it was only foreigners and tourists who would write something. They’d say it was an amazing idea,” he recalls.

One of Wong’s favourite pastimes is taking out the books and rereading his favourite comments. Sometimes, the passenger writes a long letter or draws an elaborate picture. Others just sign their name with a short greeting. Most write in English or Chinese, but there are many other languages to be found in the books, including Korean, Hindi and Japanese. Some of the books took a year to fill with comments, while others were done within six months.

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Sometimes, reading the messages triggers memories for Wong. One of his favourites is the story of two women from Canada who took a shine to him. “They were retired nurses and had come to Hong Kong. They saw the book in my car and thought it was amazing, because they’d never seen anything like it in Canada. So, when they wrote in the book, they also wrote down their phone numbers and addresses. They told me I had to come and visit them someday and they took a photo of me so they could recognise me if I ever came to Canada.

The grandfather of five, who is based in New Territories and spends his free time practising kung fu and trying to teach it to his grandchildren, says he hasn’t visited his Canadian friends yet, but it’s on his list. “Let us release positive energy. Just write what you want to write,” reads his handwritten message on the cover of book eight.

But writing in the books isn’t just for Wong’s benefit. Another memorable passenger was a girl who was “failing in love”, Wong says. “She used two pages writing in my book. She said she felt less sad afterwards and thanked me for giving the space to release her thoughts.”

The latest government figures show there are 18,163 taxis in Hong Kong. Google “Hong Kong taxi driver” and the top results include the transport department’s taxi complaints form, several news stories about driver-passenger stand-offs and several videos of irate altercations. In June this year, driver behaviour hit the headlines after a video of a cabbie launching into a foul-mouthed tirade against a pedestrian went viral.

“You’re lucky if you get a good-tempered driver, especially older ones,” Wong says. “So many people complain that taxi drivers have bad attitudes. But we’re in a service industry; we must have a good attitude.” He doesn’t see eye to eye with his easily angered colleagues, but he can relate to the frustration of being stuck behind the wheel of a stuffy vehicle in traffic all day. “It can be a boring and stressful job. They’re stuck in a small compartment all day and nobody talks to them. They need to vent! That’s why they lose their temper and drive like mad men.”

Amid a surge of complaints in 2015, the Transport Department began urging passengers to self-police the taxi industry. In the first quarter of 2017, the Transport Complaints Unit received 2,410 complaints, an increase of 10.1 per cent compared to the same quarter last year. Alongside rudeness, taximeter irregularities, not taking the direct route and overcharging, one of the most widely filed complaints is hire refusals – when a driver won’t take a passenger based on their destination.

Wong recognises such behaviour, but doesn’t condone it. “I drive anywhere. Wherever the passenger wants to go. I know some taxi drivers don’t like to take people across the harbour. If they’re in Hong Kong, they don’t like going to Kowloon side. But I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter. I think to be a taxi driver, you need to learn to make the most of your time. Time is money!

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“Sometimes, drivers get in a bad mood if they’ve been waiting at the taxi stand for ages and the passenger gets in and asks to go to the McDonald’s around the corner, which only costs HK$24. But there’s no need to be like that. There’s no point in making yourself unhappy every day.”

A mounting problem, says Wong, is the lack of young people going into the industry. A 2015 Polytechnic University study of 700 drivers found that the average age of drivers ranged from 51 to 60 years old, and the average monthly income ranged from HK$11,000 to HK$24,000.

“Local drivers are about 50 or 60 years old with a lower education level. It is difficult to attract youngsters to join the industry given the fairly low pay and the lack of career prospects. Traditional taxi drivers generally have volatile income and incompetent training. As a result, there is a lot of difference in their service quality. This gives the public a negative image,” the study concluded.

Wong says: “It’s not an attractive job for the younger generation due to the income and the long working hours – 10 to 11 hours a day for about HK$20,000 a month. It’s not enough to support a family.”

Though Wong is technically retired, he still works between four and five days a week for about nine hours a day to support his three children and five grandchildren.

Wong joined the taxi industry in 1976, but left during the ’90s to start a fashion business, manufacturing jeans in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. “The business failed and I lost everything. It wasn’t a good experience,” Wong says. He moved back to Hong Kong around 2000 and became a driving instructor at the Hong Kong School of Motoring in Sha Tin. “It was great! I really enjoyed it,” he says.

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After three years, he found his way back to driving taxis again. “I enjoy the job very much because I like driving and talking to passengers. Every day you meet and chat to different people.”

Three of Wong’s close friends are taxi drivers and, although they’re aware of his books and the enjoyment they bring him, they haven’t adopted the idea in their own cabs. “They don’t see any direct benefits – they think it’s meaningless and that no one has time to sign a book,” he says with a sigh. “I explain and try to pressure them to do it, but they won’t. I tell them how happy it makes me feel. I’ve been doing this for four years and lots of people have seen the books, but no other drivers are doing it. If more people did this, society would become a lot more harmonious.”

Undeterred by the apathy of his peers, Wong plans to keep up the initiative. “I hope more drivers in the future will do the same as me. There’ll be a lot more positive energy around; it’ll be good for society,” he says, before finally adding, “I’ll keep doing this.”

Next week: meet Hong Kong’s women taxi drivers