This is the first in a new series of articles exploring iconic Hong Kong vehicles that have found a new home overseas.
Al Wu has never lived in Hong Kong, but it has been a part of his life since he was born. “My dad is Chinese from Hong Kong and my mom’s Irish and French-Canadian,” explains the 46-year-old real estate broker. “I was pretty much raised by my Chinese side in downtown Toronto’s Chinatown. I went to Chinese school and I’m fluent in Cantonese.”
Before the pandemic, Wu travelled to Hong Kong every couple of years, staying with relatives for a few weeks at a time. “The first time I went there was probably in 1990, when I was 14. The first thing that hit me was, you walk out from the old airport and that’s the only thing you’d see – all the red taxis everywhere. That made a mark on me. Those red taxis are pretty much the constant in a city that’s very busy and chaotic.”
Wu certainly isn’t the only one who recognises Hong Kong’s taxis as an inextricable part of the city’s identity. Painter Chow Chun-fai dedicated a series of works to taxis, just one of many artists, designers, photographers and other creatives who have explored the unique aesthetics and symbolic significance of the red cabs. So it’s understandable that, four years ago, when Wu saw a red Toyota Crown Comfort — still the most common model of Hong Kong taxi — languishing in the snowy parking lot of a car dealership outside Toronto, he was compelled to buy it.
It took a few years. He discovered that the car had been imported from Japan to be used as a prop in the 2013 monster movie Pacific Rim, which was based in Hong Kong but mostly filmed in Toronto. Wu’s Hong Kong-born wife baulked at the idea of buying it, but was eventually convinced when the car, built in 1997, reached 25 years old, earning it collector status and more affordable rates under Ontario’s auto insurance scheme. Wu acquired the vehicle for C$10,000 — just under HK$60,000 — at the beginning of 2022.
“It was really more of a project, a hobby,” says Wu. He became interested in fixing up old cars about 10 years ago and he thought it would be a fun experiment to faithfully recreate a Hong Kong taxi, especially given the upheaval Hong Kong has experienced over the past few years. “I’m in real estate and we have quite a few people who are ditching everything in Hong Kong and coming over here as new immigrants,” says Wu. “I felt this was something that would cheer them up. It really makes me happy to bring them a memory of Hong Kong, [especially] when some people may not be able to go back.”
When he bought it from the dealership, the car had already been painted red and silver for Pacific Rim, but it didn’t have any other essential features: no decals, no roof light, no taximeter. He began trying to recreate the decals himself, but after starting an Instagram account to document his project, former Hong Kong taxi drivers and other taxi enthusiasts began offering to send him authentic kit, including real government-issued warning labels about smoking and wearing seat belts.
As Wu began driving around in his refurbished taxi, he attracted plenty of attention. Toronto is a hub for the Hong Kong diaspora; more than 668,000 of the city’s 6.1 million people claim Chinese heritage, according to the 2021 census, and just over a third of them speak Cantonese as a mother tongue. Victor Cheng and Sam Wong, founders of digital content firm The Apt Studios, made a u-turn in their car when they saw the taxi drive by. They later reached out to Wu and ended up making arrangements to import taxi roof lights from Hong Kong to Canada.
Wu has clearly struck a chord. He and his taxi have been hired for photoshoots and events like restaurant openings. The local Toronto media — both English and Chinese — have covered his adventure. In The Drive, a magazine for car enthusiasts, writer Chris Tsui penned an ode to Hong Kong’s taxis and Wu’s homage in particular.
Driving the taxi from Markham — a suburb with a particularly large concentration of Hongkongers — to the old Chinatown where Wu grew up, “I lost count of the number of folks who gleefully whipped out phones to snap pictures, or tried to flag us down to find out exactly what on earth was going on here,” writes Tsui. “Everybody who knew what it was was absolutely ecstatic to be in its presence. I can tell you firsthand that we would’ve gotten less attention if we were driving around in a Lamborghini.”
It’s an odd thing, seeing such a familiar part of Hong Kong in a foreign land, a place where you have made a home but which may never truly be home. Earlier this year, Wu was contacted by a family that had moved from Hong Kong to Montreal more than 20 years earlier and had never been back. They made the six-hour drive to Toronto just to see Wu’s taxi. “The husband had been a taxi driver for 20 years. He drove to support the family, but he hadn’t seen a taxi since he had left Hong Kong,” says Wu. “He’s in a wheelchair now so they came and he sat in the taxi. It was quite emotional for them.”
It’s these kinds of things that motivate Wu to keep going. He recently acquired a second Crown Comfort that he painted the same lime green as a New Territories taxi. And he keeps working on the little touches that make his cab feel authentic. He already has a mock taxi driver’s licence and he recently installed Transport Department tags on his meter; a few months ago, he mounted a series of mobile phones on his dash – a familiar sight in Hong Kong, where many taxi drivers seem to be running call centres on their shifts. Perhaps the only thing missing, as Tsui notes in his article, is the lingering scent of cigarettes and body odour.
Wu has dreams of importing even more Hong Kong vehicles to Hong Kong – a red minibus, maybe. But Ontario’s road regulations are less flexible when it comes to commercial vehicles, making that endeavour more complicated. For now, he’ll focus on the taxis, bringing a reminder of home to anyone with Hong Kong in their hearts.