Why are Hong Kong’s taxis red?
“I have no idea,” says Doris Leung, who runs accessible taxi service Diamond Cabs.
“You know what? I’ve never considered it,” says Billy Potts, a Hong Kong-born designer who has worked with taxi drivers on a number of projects.
Not even the government seems to know. “We do not have [that information] readily available,” said a spokesperson for the Transport Department when I asked why Hong Kong’s taxis are red.
It goes to show that, even if this city’s taxis are ubiquitous and iconic, we don’t think too much about them. There are exactly 18,138 licenced taxis in Hong Kong – about one taxi for every 396 residents, making this one of the most taxi-dense cities in the world. (By contrast, New York has one taxi for every 618 people.) But for the most part they disappear into the background. “They get taken for granted,” says Billy Potts.
But they shouldn’t. Hong Kong is one of the few cities in the world with such a uniform fleet of taxis. Not only do they share the same livery (red in the urban areas, green in the New Territories and blue on Lantau), more than 99 percent of all taxis are Toyota Crown Comforts, a distinctively boxy model of car made exclusively for taxi use. While the Crown Comfort is also a popular taxi vehicle in Japan and Singapore, only in Hong Kong it is quite so ubiquitous.
“They are a huge part of the city’s look,” says Potts. “You can’t miss the colour red because it is arguably the most dynamic and powerful colour with strong emotional connotations. The iconography of Hong Kong taxis is also unmistakeable – consistent typeface, colours, shapes.” That extends to the green crescent-shaped sticker indicating the number of seats in the taxi, the white “的士” and “Taxi” type on the doors, the yellow information labels inside the doors and the black vinyl upholstery with false stitching used for all the seats. “All of this is mundane information that we need not consciously have at the forefront of our minds,” says Potts. “Subconsciously, though, they will always play a strong role in defining Hong Kong’s visual culture and identity.”
A few years ago, renowned British designer Thomas Heatherwick gave a talk in which he lamented how globalisation is homogenising the appearance of the world’s great cities, right down to the service vehicles on their streets. For awhile, it seemed as though the unique London black cab might be replaced by the same kind of minivan taxi used in New York. Here in Hong Kong, new Ford Transit and Toyota Prius taxis can now be spotted on the streets. “It would be a shame to lose that consistency and visual cohesiveness,” says Potts.
Local urban planning critic John Batten compares the city’s taxis to dai pai dongs, noodle shops, street markets and housing estates – emblems of a grassroots Hong Kong that is being steadily trimmed away. “They possess an earlier, egalitarian aura when Hong Kong’s public was considered to all be in it together,” he says. “[In the past], there were fewer trappings of elitism – no black SUVs hogging side-roads and no Uber supporters who tend to think Uber transport is superior to the common taxi.”
Before World War II, rickshaws were the way to get around town if you your feet, the bus or the tram couldn’t do the job. Taxis made their debut in 1941, when a local entrepreneur named Wu Zung launched a fleet of 40 cars. His business was put on hold by the Japanese occupation, but it didn’t take long after the end of the war for taxis to once again hit the streets. By the end of the 1940s, there were 330 officially licenced cabs. Fares were set at HK$1.5 for the first two miles on Hong Kong Island and HK$1 in Kowloon, with an extra 20 cents for every quarter-mile thereafter.
The taxi landscape back then would be unrecognisable to somebody from today’s Hong Kong. The taxi industry was dominated by a handful of companies, each of which had its own distinct livery. In a 1960s-era photo of Nathan Road, taxis are decked out in various combinations of yellow, red and white, with a hodgepodge of vehicles: DeSoto Deluxes, Morris Oxfords, Ford Anglias, Vauxhall Veloxes – even a Mercedes-Benz W120s. Apparently, some locals at the time joked that there was no need to save up for a Benz when you could just take a taxi.
The appearance of taxis wasn’t standardised until 1974, when the fare difference between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island was erased and all cabs were required to adopt the same livery. There seems to be no record of why the colour red was chosen, though it was the one constant in the liveries of all the different taxi companies, and red is one of Hong Kong’s most prevalent colours. New Territories taxis were introduced in 1976 and Lantau taxis made their debut in 1982. Their respective colours have more of a logic to them – green for the verdant New Territories, blue for seaside Lantau.
Over the course of the 1980s and 90s, most taxi owners opted for chunky, workhorse vehicles like the Nissan Cedric and the especially popular Toyota Crown Comfort, which was honoured in 2011 with a special award by Toyota’s president, who admires its utilitarian aesthetics. “The car itself is unspectacular but it is very important to Toyota,” said a company spokesperson. Taxi owners like the vehicles because they are relatively affordable and dependable – and when something breaks, the fact they are so ubiquitous makes it easy to source second-hand parts.
Artists seem to like them, too. In 2004, Amy Wan Man-cheung unveiled “Down the Rabbit Hole, ‘TAXI!’ says Alice,” a life-sized rendition of a red Crown Comfort taxi that tilts cartoonishly towards the ground, as if it was racing to pick up a fare waiting on the curb. Described by curator Alice Ming as a “sculptural intervention” in “geographies of nowhere,” Wan placed the taxi in parking lots, taxi ranks and other public places around Hong Kong and Guangzhou, an uncanny intrusion that must have provoked a lot of double-takes.
Chow Chun-fai may be best known for painting poignant scenes in well-known Hong Kong movies, but one of his earlier series of works focused on taxis. When Chow was growing up, his father owned two taxis, and after he took ill, Chow had to run the business himself, dealing with drivers, licences, insurance and maintenance. “I learned a lot from running those taxis that I didn’t from the art world,” he told me in 2009. “I learned about life from taxis.” For Chow, painting taxis was a way to establish his identity, not just as an artist but as a person. “When I paint from my life, or I paint the taxis and street scenes I see every day, it shows very clearly that I am from Hong Kong,” he said. “It made me realize that I can’t escape from that.”
Australian-born Hongkonger Allison Haworth-West has made one of the most recent contributions to the city’s taxi cannon. Her new book, Taxi Art, documents the way taxi drivers personalise their dashboards with tiny Buddhas, Hello Kitty statuettes, action figures and the kinds of plastic toys you get from the dispensers outside 7-Eleven. “About five years ago it occurred to me that there should be some record of these small manifestations of the unique culture of Hong Kong,” she says. “It is art of the moment and of [the] everyday.”
When Billy Potts made the transition from maritime lawyer to designer, he started out by making taxi-based products with collaborators Joseph Ng and Albert Tong. After they noticed that taxis needed to frequently replace their vinyl upholstery, they struck a deal with some workshops to reclaim the discarded material and turn it into bags. Potts also designed watches inspired by the aesthetics of Hong Kong taxis, along with the Artefact Lamp, based on a taxi roof light.
“I felt it important to be subtle because I wanted to avoid the design becoming kitsch,” he says. “It tapped into subconscious knowledge – most people can recognise the look of the material but it was the touch that was especially familiar. Evoking those feelings based on the senses, memories and the subconscious was far more interesting to me. Implying the connection by referencing the livery is so much more elegant than simply writing ‘TAXI’ on everything.”
It may well be that most people in Hong Kong think about taxis only on the subconscious level: they can instinctively recall the particular feel of the vinyl seats, the angular dashboard, the way the automatic door swings open as soon as the fare is paid. There is one exception, however – and that’s all the bad things about Hong Kong taxis. Search through the archives of any local newspaper and you’ll find story after story about tourists being overcharged and drivers who break the law by refusing service. Though such concerns have been amplified by the recent arrival of Uber, they are hardly new – a 1993 report by the South China Morning Post outlined exactly the same problems.
1993 was also the year of Taxi Hunter, a Hong Kong movie starring Anthony Wong Chau-sang as Ah Kin, a man whose pregnant wife is killed by a careless taxi driver. Wong’s character flips out and goes on a rampage, murdering taxi drivers until his best friend—a police detective—tries to stop him. Like other Hong Kong exploitation films, known locally as “Category III films” for the restricted rating they received due to sex or violence, Taxi Hunter is lurid, over-the-top and campily entertaining. The film’s great conceit is that Ah Kin is a generally decent man – except when confronted with the deviousness of corrupt taxi drivers.
What is striking about the film is how little Hong Kong’s taxis have changed since 1993 – aesthetically, at least. Change may come, but at least there will always be one constant: the colour red.