“Jik-hoi, mm-goi.” That request – “Straight ahead, please” – is one of the few “taxi Cantonese” phrases most foreigners know. But writer Meno Monteir took the trouble to learn to speak the language and found that dialogues with taxi drivers were a good reminder to avoid the labelling processes that polarize us
LIKE MANY PEOPLE IN HONG KONG, I take taxis from time to time, and rarely for the comfort of an air-conditioned ride. More often than not, I have not budgeted enough time to get where I need to be using the city’s inexpensive public transport, and have to reluctantly make up the difference with – ouch – actual money.
I then find my way into arguably the most ubiquitous experience in Hong Kong: occasions where I re-learn the important lesson that life is more complex than we assume. First impressions matter, but perhaps not as much as we think.
Many people, particularly the god-like media pundits looking down on Hong Kong, try to put everyone into neat little ideological boxes with one very simple formula: “If you don’t support X, then you are Y.” But surely what most ordinary people see every time we talk to actual human beings is that they rarely fit in the boxes to which they’ve been assigned. It’s too easy to just shout: homophobe, racist, jock, Trump-supporter, SJW, woke, unwoke, “blue”, “yellow”, pro-China, anti-China, pro-Kremlin, anti-science, transphobe, mouth-breather, Commie, tankie, and so on.
People leap to labelling. It’s a speedy way to feel good by attacking anyone who challenges our world view. But I know for a fact that I don’t fit into the box(es) people try to put me in. And not because of remnants of my rebellious past attempts to be “different”. People can only ever be the sum of their experiences, and mine make me unboxable. Just like you.
“Hong Kong taxi drivers have never been known for their political correctness.”
And just like another group of very unboxable people: Hong Kong taxi-drivers. I have increasingly found myself re-learning this important lesson from my dialogues with them – conversations that usually start when I hop into one and tell them my destination in near-fluent Cantonese, despite possessing a face that shouldn’t be doing so.
Hong Kong taxi drivers have never been known for their political correctness. When they want to know something, they just ask. And when confronted with a racially ambiguous face such as mine speaking Cantonese, they often do just that. And thus the dialogues begin.
These chats range from mild, usually friendly, banter, to deep philosophical discussions, and everything in between. They sometimes incorporate English or Cantonese lessons, political musings, epiphanies, relationship advice, and every so often, they lead to some real friendships. These interactions happen so often that I have come to call them “Filomeno’s Taxi-Driver Dialogues”.
Now before these dialogues started happening, I never gave a thought to the average Hong Kong taxi driver. Unlike a patrolling police officer who may be able to find some nook of this city to while away the remaining hours of their shift, a taxi-driver’s job demands (not asks or suggests) that they give every complete stranger hopping into in their taxis the absolute benefit of the doubt. They have to hope that the passenger will not (in extreme cases) rob or murder them, or not (in less extreme cases) suddenly reveal themselves to have Usain Bolt’s speed in running off without paying the fare.
I also doubt “taxi-driver” was among their responses as children when asked what they wanted to be as adults. They drive a cab now, often, out of necessity; and even as a career stopgap, it rarely feels like a first choice. Good or bad, and for all for all their faults, the Hong Kong taxi driver is a key element of the class of citizen that comes to my mind when a Westerner in this city uses the phrase “local Chinese”.
My most recent such dialogue started off as a trip from Clearwater Bay to Kwun Tong. A stocky man with salt and pepper hair sat behind the wheel. At first, it seemed that my existence didn’t trigger the least bit of curiosity. Looking to be in his late 50s, he drove with the calm serenity that some fathers develop after enough time spent chauffeuring multiple small children with varying levels of sugar in their systems. To me, it seemed like his English name would be “David”.
David hummed along to How Deep is Your Love by the Bee-Gees playing from one of the 16 phones on his dashboard. After some questions about routes, the curiosity of my racially ambiguous face got the better of him and he made the opening move; a very subtle one at that.
He gently turned the volume of his music a little louder; for what I guessed was my benefit, and asked, in English, “Do you like the Bee-Gees?” I answered back, also in English, that I did. The “What are you?” question came and went, and soon, we reverted back to Cantonese because our conversation had moved way past chui sui (literally blowing water, but meaning “small talk”) to more pressing matters: the state of modern music.
In minutes, we were deep in the realm of discussing the actual musicians of yesteryear recording actual songs with actual instruments, versus the 1980s advert jingle-esqe melodies that pass themselves off as hit songs these days. You usually know you’re listening to one of these songs because some teenager or young adult will call its beat “Fire!” or “Lit!”
It turned out that David was a man who loved form as well as function. We both shared a deep appreciation for the process as much as the finished product when it came to music, and we were also both fathers of adult children who didn’t share this appreciation. We agreed that no amount of button-pressing music software would ever compare to the human efforts of Eric Clapton, George Benson, Bobby Caldwell or even Kurt Cobain, in a room filled with other masters of their craft and a little inspiration. We laughed that we had become the exact fathers our fathers warned us we would become.
Nearing the end of our journey, I decided to leave him with a recommendation for Brazilian-Japanese fusion-jazz artist, Yutaka Yokokura. Yutaka (as he’s known in Jazz-festival world) fuses Latin and Jazz influences with the Japanese Koto. Which some may know is derived from the Chinese Guzheng.
David didn’t know of Yutaka, but was keen to cue it up on one of his phones. I suggested Evening Star. A song from Yutaka’s 1978 album Love Light.
We arrived in Kwun Tong and the normal exchange of money that occurs at this point was almost forgotten because of how distracted David was typing in my suggestion. We had forgotten that we were actually in a business transaction and not a Fo-Tan dai pai dong exchanging stories over beers. The brief, but mildly profound connection we had just made felt that genuine. These taxi dialogues almost always do. It’s as if whatever box we initially assign to each other is simply discarded with nothing more than a simple, open-minded conversation.
These types of interactions are one of many I have navigating my life around this wonderful city and why I don’t believe the naysayers, local and western, who say things like;
“Hong Kong is different now.”
“Hong Kong’s soul is gone.”
“The old Hong Kong is dead.”
“China bad because [insert same thing America did during the Iraq War].”
I ignore these naysayers, because what they say is always devoid of nuance. And what about the all-important context that needs to be provided with assertions? Good luck finding that! It would be easier to find a unicorn, the Loch Ness Monster, or an eight-year-old dreaming of growing up to become a taxi-driver.
One thing these naysayers do get right is that Hong Kong is the meeting ground between East and West. But what they forget is that this is embedded into the cultural DNA of Hong Kong and no amount of supposed Chinese, American or even British meddling can change that. Sorry to say it, but the naysayers putting the old Hong Kong into a box labeled “Gone” is simply inaccurate.
They just aren’t looking hard enough.
Meno (pronounced “Manu”) Monteir is a writer based in Hong Kong.
Photo at the top by Haley Truong/ Unsplash