Hong Kong Wheels: A Taxi’s Near-Death Experience in the UK

For nearly six years, Robin Greene has been driving a Hong Kong taxi around the UK, much to the delight of expat Hongkongers and anyone else with a connection to the city. “For most people, it brings back really fond memories,” he says. “I’ve had people cry. I’ve had people run down the street after me. I’ve had a bus full of Hong Kong schoolkids just going bananas after seeing me in Brighton.”

And then he wrecked it. “I absolutely smashed it,” he says. “I wasn’t concentrating and I slammed into the back of another car. It was kind of heartbreaking. Not kind of – really heartbreaking. I wanted it for the rest of my life. I crashed it and everyone was like, ‘That’s a write-off. It’s dead.’” 

Unlike Al Wu, who imported a Toyota Comfort to Toronto and kitted it out to look like a Hong Kong taxi, Greene has no family connection to Hong Kong. And unlike Joe Wu, who has painstakingly recreated a red cab in Los Angeles, Greene didn’t grow up riding in Hong Kong taxis with his family. But he has something neither of those enthusiasts do: a real, genuine taxi that once served the streets of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. 

The story of how Greene acquired the taxi starts with the 2018 ITV drama Strangers, starring Anthony Wong Chau-sang as a former police officer who becomes embroiled in the murder of a British woman who had been living a double life. Greene works as a financial controller for film and television productions and he was hired to manage the show’s budget, which took him to Hong Kong for a few months for on-location shooting.

“I was blown away by Hong Kong,” he says. And the taxis were a part of that. “There is just something about the taxi that is so associated with Hong Kong –  you could probably say the same thing about the London black cab. I know that’s kind of stating the obvious but they’re just really cool cars. Everyone just jumps in them, don’t they? Because they’re cheap. And they’re unique.”

Greene returned home when Strangers finished production in the UK. But then something unexpected happened: the show’s producers decided they needed to import a taxi for a crucial shot. Greene isn’t exactly sure why it was so essential. “It really was just one shot, but it could have been the story didn’t make sense without that shot,” he says. Either way, it was easier to bring the taxi to the UK than it was to send the whole cast and crew back to Hong Kong for one scene.

The 2004 Toyota Crown Comfort had to be converted from liquified petroleum gas (LPG) to regular petrol in order to be used in the UK, but otherwise it didn’t need any alterations. “It was just registered and off you go,” says Greene. He didn’t think much of it until Strangers wrapped up and he was tallying up the show’s assets. “And this was a really cool asset,” he says. He decided to buy it from the production. For how much? “Let’s just say we agreed on a price,” he says.

Whereas Al Wu has parlayed his taxi into a social media phenomenon, with more than 14,000 followers on Instagram and partnerships with Toronto-area businesses, Greene simply intended it to be a fun ride around the seaside town of Hove, where he lives with his wife and three children. He does have a modest Instagram following, thanks in part to a plug from Anthony Wong, but he doesn’t post many pictures. And he hasn’t been particularly fastidious about maintaining the taxi’s appearance; he removed the interior stickers, the taximeter and the roof light because “it was a bit too much to have that and all the rest of it.” But he has grown to appreciate just how much delight it creates in the people who see it.

“I had a family come up to me recently, with a little girl, they’d just come over from Hong Kong,” he says. “They were blown away by the taxi. When they went back to Hong Kong to see their families, they brought me back one of the little metal taxis, the toys.”

That kind of reaction motivated Greene to invest a lot of time and money into the taxi when it developed an electrical fault a year after he bought it. “I took it to various garages but everyone kind of scratched their head,” he says. He ended up buying a special part called an inverter from a scrapyard in Vladivostok — “This was before the war,” he clarifies — which needed to be bailed out of a customs warehouse in Moscow, only to discover it didn’t solve the problem. When his mechanics discovered it was actually a problem with the car’s 36-volt battery, a replacement of which couldn’t be imported to the UK, they ended up “daisy-chaining three 12 volts” together to fix it.

“Cut to, I crashed the car, and everyone’s like, ‘It’s a write-off.’ The insurance company was like, ‘It’s a write-off.’” Luckily, his experience with the electrical problem had introduced him to some reliable mechanics. “I showed it to my garage. They said, ‘It looks really bad but we can fix it.’” 

After weeks of repairs and negotiations with the insurance company — who eventually paid for everything — the car is up and running again. “It’s been a lot of effort,” says Green. “But as my wife puts it, it’s part of the family, and if we can, we should, for our family and for the joy it brings to everyone who sees it. It’s not just a fancy sports car like a lamborghini. It brings back childhood memories. It’s like the last scene in the film Ratatouille, which is a bit of a bizarre comparison, but you get it. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a car that brings so much joy to people.” 

Follow Robin Greene’s Hong Kong taxi on Instagram @hove_hongkong_taxi.

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