Mr. Absolutely Ngo of the Shift Change Taxi Management Company, something of a toff in the taxi trade in that he changes his shirt daily , explained to me the Hong Kong government’s persecution of Uber quite clearly. “The licensed taxi system here is an antique business model which is in danger and must be preserved for future generations at all costs. Like prewar pawn shops and banyan trees, Hong Kong taxis are part of our local culture. We are failing to preserve the shops and the trees because there is no money in them. On the contrary, there is a lot of money outside them waiting for them to fall down and make space.
“There is a lot of money in taxis though, involving a small group of people who take part in the timeless ritual of making a bundle out Hong Kong government licensing and quotas. The symbols of this , our beloved red topped Toyotas, shimmering in their hundreds in the setting sun as they queue for gas along blocked roads, are under threat from cowboys who fill up whenever they feel like it and do not clock on and clock off all at the same time.’
According to Mr. Ngo, there is no tradition of Hong Kong people having free market accessories like Uber scuttling around at their beck and call in an economy as stitched up as this one. ‘They don’t expect to get Tesco or Carrefour or Boots. Why the hell should they expect a situation where they can call a car at any time they like, with a driver who behaves like some sort of servant, takes them directly and exactly where they want to go – and no snot soiled tissues stuck down the side of the seat for them to stick their fingers in?”
‘How long have you lived here?’ he asked me. I told him quite a while. “Then this you’ll understand. People invest money in a service and receive returns out of all proportion to the people operating it and what the public gets from it. That is the Hong Kong model and the taxis are one of its proudest icons. Close to seven million for a taxi and licence, twenty thousand a month income from renting it, I’m not telling what I get for commission and fees, and $55 an hour average earning for the driver. They should teach it on MBA programmes. ”
He became almost teary as he told me of the treasures of the trade which Uber put under so much threat. “It is a valuable refuge for people with limited social skills and a robust indifference to their fellow men who want to move on from driving dumper trucks, fork-lifts and mortuary vans. It is a traditional opportunity for people already stressed from their day jobs, to carry passengers around at night, at speed, to pay off mounting personal debts. It requires no background checks, street knowledge or training and many older drivers still operate in the touching belief that the gas pedal is a stop-start button. This is what licensing is all about. Deregulation is disgusting! ”
He admitted that Hong Kong taxis do resemble those of other Asian cities in being unavailable or suddenly unaffordable at times when most needed, as in bad weather, after work, late at night or taking the Rottweiler to the vet. “But which other city,’ he asked, ‘has taxis in three colours, two of which cannot go to some areas and one of which can go to all of them but doesn’t want to? We are ‘Asian City in the World.’ That’s how it goes isn’t it?”
Frankie Yick, Liberal Party and transport ‘constituency’ member in Legco, is neither liberal nor greatly concerned with how people get around because he too is a keen one for prosecuting Uber drivers.
So intent is Liberal Yick on the finest detail of licensing and insurance, that people picking up friends from the airport and mothers collecting kids from school had better watch their tricky steps. Another misnomer in the Uber purge and ever wetter than a washed lettuce, is Invest Hong Kong, which suddenly pulled its once noisy support from the firm when Yick, Absolutely’s clients and the Commissioner of Police –not much improvement there- discovered that Uber was a criminal gang causing a nuisance.
‘Invest Hong Kong’ should be shaken out until it realizes what it represents and rebrands itself to ‘inVest Hong Kong’. This administration will go down in history or for five minutes at least as the ‘Vested Government’. It represents the political, commercial, social, sexual, dietary, sartorial and pigeon-fancying vested interests of the day. Newcomers, innovators, modernisers and even plain foreigners should note the Uber persecution. It sets the tone nicely.