In Hong Kong, taxis are ubiquitous. But even with 18,163 of them, it can sometimes feel impossible to flag one down. You can be waiting for a ride only to discover that every passing cab is out of service. Some taxi drivers seem to be picky about their destinations, refusing to cross the harbour even though the law says they should.
But of course, at the end of the day, taxi drivers are there to make money. Enter the rabbitfish taxi, or nai4 maang1 dik1 si6 (泥鯭的士). Rabbitfish taxis are, in many ways, illegally operated vehicles. In most cases, the taxi driver and the customer work out a fee that both parties agree on. This becomes the fare for the trip, in lieu of payment that is generated using the metre in the car, which is calculated based on distance. Sometimes, rabbitfish taxis are organised affairs: cab drivers sit in designated spots and wait to pick up multiple passengers in the know. People find out via social media or word of mouth.
The expression is made up of the characters nai4 maang1, meaning rabbitfish, and dik1 si6 for taxi. Also known as the mottled spinefoot, the rabbitfish is a breed that can be found in the western Pacific. It is considered a cheap, dirty breed of fish — and as far as Hong Kong cuisine goes, it is a rare sight, except for rabbitfish congee. In this sense, the use of “rabbitfish” here refers to the fact that these taxis are rogue.
Though it is illegal for taxi drivers to add surcharges to the metre fee, rabbitfish taxis are popular, both for passengers looking to do a long-distance journey, or in the early hours when few public transport options are available.
You could argue that the rabbitfish taxis benefit both the driver and the passenger. Sometimes, riders end up saving money because they can carpool with a group of strangers. The downside is that this allows unscrupulous drivers the opportunity to call all the shots. In rural neighbourhoods where there are fewer taxis than in urban areas, some drivers have been known to “name their price.”
Still, there are taxi drivers out there who supplement their income in a legal way. Those cabs with about a dozen mobile phones on their dashboards? These drivers are part of various informal taxi associations. Passengers in the know call up certain numbers, and an operator will put out an announcement on the network to see if a driver nearby can pick you up. These cab drivers will adhere to the metre-generated fare, and in some instances will throw in a discount for long-distance rides.
We can’t condone rabbitfish taxis — the way they’re run isn’t exactly kosher. But we can tell you that, next time you need to get a cab across the harbour, make sure to look out for cabs that have a “not in service” sign on their windshields. Make a wavy motion with your hand: this signals that you want to go cross harbour.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.