Uber Hong Kong sees bumpy ride on long road to acceptance

The ride-hailing company may find itself in a legal battle and up against the taxi trade and government, but the man in charge locally is happy to drive on

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2017, 10:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 11:34am

Facing hostility from the taxi trade and a government crackdown, the man in charge of Uber in Hong Kong remains undaunted as he fights an uphill battle to make the ride-hailing business ­legitimate.

Kenneth She Chun-chi, general manager of Uber Hong Kong, told the Post the transport industry should be a win-win affair for everyone, from the new and existing service providers to a public given greater travel options.

He said the greatest opposition to Uber did not come from the cabbies themselves but the owners of taxi firms, who had spent millions of dollars on ­licences and saw Uber as a threat to their vested ­interests.

“I have a clear conscience. All along what I’ve done has not in any way affected cabbies’ livelihoods. On the contrary, we’ve ­offered them opportunities to be our drivers. And the working hours are very flexible,” She said, adding that a family member was a taxi driver, and he was aware of their daily struggles.

“The problem lies with some taxi firms that own a large number of licences. But a taxi licence should serve as a tool [for cabbies], not as a commodity for ­investment,” he said.

“It’s a pity that this historical issue remains unresolved.”

The 30-year-old Oxford ­University graduate was speaking amid an ongoing legal battle ­involving five Uber drivers charged with using a car for hire without a permit and ­driving without third-party ­insurance.

A taxi licence should serve as a tool [for cabbies], not as a commodity for ­investment
Kenneth She, Uber general manager

Their trial, the result of a police raid on Uber offices following complaints by taxi drivers in ­August 2015, will resume on ­February 27.

The Hong Kong firm, founded nearly three years ago, focuses on ride-sharing platforms UberX and UberBlack as well as meal delivery service UberEats. It also provides special services, such as helicopter rides, on a seasonal basis.

The government stopped ­issuing taxi licences in 1994 and the number of vehicles has ­remained flat, at slightly over 18,000, since. As of January, a licence, freely tradeable in the market, costs about HK$6.6 million.

At present, there are about 9,000 holders of taxi licences, 8,000 of whom are solo cab owners, and around 40,000 drivers.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said earlier that any changes to the current system should ­consider the public interest, ­including those holding licences.

However, She said the government should respect the needs of Hongkongers, who required more transport options to make life easier, more efficient and ­convenient.

“The fact that our number of riders has reached over one ­million with more than 30,000 drivers working under us, just within two years of operation, shows Hong Kong really needs our service,” he said. “We’ll keep explaining this to all stakeholders, including the government.”

This presents a huge challenge for She, but one he is only too happy to meet.

Born into a grass-roots ­family in public housing, he worked his way up the education ladder and, thanks to scholarships, was awarded a master’s ­degree in engineering at Oxford.

The former investment banker said he took the helm of Uber Hong Kong because he saw it as a good opportunity to improve the quality of life.

“Hong Kong people deserve more choices for point-to-point transport. I was born and grew up in Hong Kong, and I found something was missing here,” She said.

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“That was why I decided to bring Uber to Hong Kong. I hope to make Uber a household name in this city.”

As the first member of the team in the city, the most difficult time for She was the launch when there were only two other ­colleagues and 10 drivers working as partners.

Now the number of Uber staff stands at more than 100.

She had to start from scratch with a tight budget. This meant he had to go out and recruit drivers by handing out leaflets on the streets, and visiting car parks to talk to owners of private vehicles and taxi drivers.

“Sometimes I took a taxi ride as a passenger, struck up a conversation with the driver and asked him if I could join his gathering with other drivers,” he said, explaining another of his tactics at the start of operations.

“Then I would explain to them about Uber and invited them to join us.”

At the time he also went along for the ride by acting as an ­assistant to drivers. This allowed him to meet those who took Uber and answer their questions as well as those of drivers.

Furthermore, the three ­mobile phones he carried allowed him to deal with inquiries and ­reply to the hundreds of emails ­received each day.

“At that time I didn’t have a big budget for placing TV ads. I could only rely on word-of-mouth ­promotion between drivers and riders,” he said.

As a result of this hard work, She is confident the deadlock with the government will eventually be resolved as long as it has the will to act in the best interests for all, as shown by other governments in the world who have already ­legalised Uber.

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He said Uber Hong Kong was willing to be regulated, but the existing law was so outdated it was not applicable to new firms such as his.

Under the law, anyone using a private car for carriage of passengers for hire or reward must ­obtain a hire car permit.

But She argued that the permit system, capped at 1,500 for ­private cars, needed to be relaxed because it was aimed at regulating limousine services for hotels, tour firms or big corporations and did not allow any electronic installation for payment.

“We are not stealing the business of others. We are just providing more convenient options and job opportunities for Hong Kong people, why would this be a bad thing to some people?”