Hong Kong’s streets are saturated with the ubiquitous 的士 (dik1 si2). In flashes of red, green and blue, they sprint down narrow alleys and up the tight curves of the city’s roads. If you are in the centre, the taxis are red; if you’re in the New Territories, you’re more likely to see bright pea-soup green version. On Lantau Island, where there are only 50 taxis, they come in an aquatic shade of pale blue. These rides for hire have become an intrinsic part of the Hong Kong landscape.
You’ve had the nice driver who called out as you got off the car when he realised your phone had slipped into the folds of the backseat and you’ve had the one who made you hold on for dear life as he raced through red lights, ready to chew off the head of anyone in his path. When you think you may have found the nicest or maddest driver of them all, just remember that there are more than 18,000 other taxis in the city, taking about 1.3 million customers daily on a personal adventure to their destination.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Before the 的士, there were man-drawn rickshaws. Before the rickshaws, there were sedan chairs – but only for the rich, who usually lived on Victoria Peak. After the Second World War, the popularity of rickshaws dwindled and soon taxis began to appear. The man reputed to be responsible for the start of the trade was Wu Zung, who in 1941 introduced 40 vehicles with 10 extra 白牌車 (baak6 paai4 ce1) for leasing to the government. 白牌車 literally means “white card car,”and it was an unlicensed taxi owned by a citizen which often transported more than one customer at the same time. Nowadays they still exist with groups of people coming together to rent a 白牌車 for a recurring route they may take everyday. By the end of the 1940s, the government registered about 330 official taxis and by the 1980s, there were already more than 10,000 roaming the streets.
In China, taxis are officially referred to as 出租車 (chū zū chē), literally meaning “renting-out-car”; the Cantonese version borrows directly from the English taxi. The two characters that form 的士 don’t actually mean anything beyond an imitation of the foreign sound. The word “taxi” itself comes from the french taximètre originating from the Latin taxa meaning to tax or charge, with mètre coming from the Greek metron meaning to measure. The taxis in Paris were first equipped with meters in 1898, but the real evolution came in the 1940s when the first two-way radios began showing up, then turning to centralised computer dispatching systems in the 1980s. So while Hong Kong was slightly behind in introducing taxis to its busy citizens, as usual it seemed to be right on the pulse when it came to catching up in the 1940s and 1980s.
Next time you run out of things to chat about with your friendly taxi driver with the freakishly long pinky nail, ask him about the history of taxis in Hong Kong: you may be surprised by his answer. Just don’t ask him about the extortionate licensing fees – that might send him into a rant you won’t recover from.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.