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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of the iconic Hong Kong taxi

By Grace Chong 11 May 2021

Header image courtesy of The University of Hong Kong Libraries

Taxis are a staple in most countries, offering starry-eyed tourists a break from navigating foreign transport systems, exhausted parents lugging groceries and children, or the giddy group of friends returning home after a night out. And yet, nowhere else is the image of an iconic “taxi” as integrated into the global image of a city as in Hong Kong, with photos and caricatures of the famous red and green taxis adorning Etsy shops and Instagram hashtags.

But how did Hong Kong’s tri-coloured taxi system come to be? In an era of mobile-ordered rides and carshares, how has Hong Kong’s taxi system stayed as busy and intact? And most importantly, how did taxis become such an iconic image in the eyes of foreigners and Hongkongers abroad? To answer that, let’s take a drive down memory lane!

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In the beginning, there were sedan chairs

The usage of private point-to-point travel is not new, with plenty of imagery and recreation of carriages and horses dawning literature and pop culture across the globe. Prior to the introduction of buses, mini-buses, and the MTR, colonial-era Hong Kong relied solely on sedan chairs. Being able to afford the luxury of such a mode of transportation was a sign of status for civil officers in particular, and thus, chair-bearers would park around hotels and wharves, waiting for wealthy patrons, with their charges displayed.

By the latter half of the 1800s, rickshaws began to compete in popularity. First imported from Japan, at its peak, there were a little over 7,000 rickshaws running along the streets of Hong Kong. Competition depended on the terrain that had to be covered and the speed of arrival. Whilst rickshaws were faster, they were ill-suited for the undulating terrain of Hong Kong Island, in particular up to the Peak. As such, prior to the introduction of the Hong Kong Peak Tram, residents of the area relied on sedan chairs to climb the narrow and steep paths up.

However, after the Second World War, the usage of rickshaws and sedan chairs gradually died down. Taxis had already been introduced to the road prior to the war, and there was little reason to continue fighting the industrial boom and modernisation that took hold. Licenses were no longer issued and existing ones are non-transferable, leaving rickshaws as a tourist activity more than a standard method of transport for locals. But there was little sorrow in the exit of the rickshaw from the transportation industry—not with the explosion of the taxi trade.

Four empires of the taxi industry

In the hey-day of the taxi industry, there were four major taxi companies that ran the roads. Taxis then were of different vehicular types and a colourful mash-up of different liveries, each representing their company. 

Wu Chung (胡忠) is credited with the introduction of taxis to Hong Kong, having started his own taxi business a little before the Second World War. He also partnered with the colonial-era government by leasing “white-card cars” (白牌車), which were essentially unlicensed taxi ride-shares. During the Second World War, the whole service essentially shut down, but by the end of the 1940s, the industry exploded.

Wu Chung is not called the father of the taxis for nothing. The fleet he owned under the Central Taxi Cab Company was enough to secure this title, but he also implemented the usage of roof lights. The very same ones that now adorn the top of every taxi—the little light-up box emblazoned with the words “Taxi”—made it easier for patrons to identify Central Taxicab Company cars, and to identify whether the taxi was already in use.

At the same time, the Wu clan, whilst running a taxicab empire on the Hong Kong Island side, also held stock in the New Taxicab, a company set up on the Kowloon side in the 1950s and 1960s by merchants and philanthropists Chan Nam-cheong (陳南昌) and Cheng Chung-kwan (鄭中鈞).

Outside of these two growing taxi empire was also the Shing taxi business, Star Taxicab Ltd. A strong contender in the Hong Kong Island market in the 1930s to 1960s, the Star Taxicab fleet was identifiable by its minimalistic lone star logo and an easy phone number to remember.

Lastly, the taxi company founded by Tsan Yung, “Goldside Taxi” (金邊的士), was set up when the Kowloon Peninsula was in its developmental phase. It was later temporarily taken over by the Japanese during the Second World War.

Development of Hong Kong through taxis

Just as how these bright and emblematically coloured cars now connect the city alongside buses and trains, the Hong Kong taxi kings funded and founded many of Hong Kong’s iconic establishments and industries.

The son of the founder of Star Taxicab went on to establish the Hang Hau Shing Hang Fong Memorial Primary School in memory of his father. The Wu family, of Central Taxicab Company notoriety, set up monthly payment plans with their driving staff to sell off the taxis and instead, focused on property development. The Tsan family went onto become one of the founders of Kwong Wah Hospital in Yau Ma Tei, now part of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.

But the most interesting connect emerges from one of the founders of the New Taxicab, Chan Nam-Cheong. After establishing a diverse portfolio in transportation, construction and property, Chan was connected with a young man named Lo Kwee-seong. Lo sought funding to start his business, HK Soya Bean Products. The vision of the company was to provide alternatives to dairy for a largely lactose intolerant market. Over the years, this company, of which Chan was a founding director, expanded its line of products and went through a drastic name and image change. These days, it's known as Vitasoy International Holdings, responsible for the childhood drinks and snacks of generations of Hong Kongers.

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Fast-forward to the current taxi system

Taxis originally had a free run of the city, with their distinctive colours matching their license type or taxi company. However, as private vehicles began to proliferate, it became increasingly difficult to identify cabs. By the end of the 1960s, the Hong Kong government began to seriously consider creating a more uniform system. Aside from identification issues, there was also the problem of distribution. Kowloon, at that time, was the city centre and hub for the most traffic, resulting in congestion of taxis in that area, with unlicensed taxis servicing the New Territories. What resulted was the current tri-coloured taxi system with different district jurisdictions.

The most populous and flexible cab, and arguably the most iconic, is the red taxi. Providing service in all areas of Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and the New Territories, the image of this cab has come to represent the distinct traffic flow of Hong Kong. These cabs start at $24 for the first two kilometres, before a rate of $1.7 per 200 metres. Because these cabs cover cross-harbour territories, specific taxi stands were set up to ease the pressure on taxi-drivers to pay an out-of-pocket toll fee or double-charge passengers when they look to cross-harbour.

Green taxis, with their green coating—possibly to reflect the mountainous backdrop of their jurisdiction—are colloquially described as covering the New Territories. A more detailed description would be the northeastern part and northwestern part of the city. A little cheaper than red taxicabs, the New Territories fleet charge $20.5 for the first two kilometres, before a rate of $1.5 every 200 metres. On the occasion that someone flags a green cab to exit the New Territories, the Transport Department has created special New Territories taxi stands outside the next designated zone, saving taxi drivers the hassle of having to drive back without a passenger or idling for long.

Less common due to their limited territorial claim are blue taxis, covering Lantau Island and Chek Lap Kok. There are only around 75 of these blue vehicles, charging $19 for the first two kilometres, then $1.5 every 200 metres. Due to an influx in demand around the summer seasons from beach-goers and hikers, there are also reports of unofficial and unlicensed cars with matching blue livery running an illegal business in taxi rides.

What does the future hold?

Hong Kong’s golden era of the taxi empire has stalled, with increased government regulations and the creeping threat of Uber entering the transportation market. In addition to regulating their colours and territory, the Hong Kong government also controls fare increases and the number of licences, which were no longer issued after 1994. 

Unlike rickshaw’s untransferable licenses, taxi drivers can sell their licenses, creating a pseudo-market where supply remains the same as demand, and the price of licences increases. Agencies will rent out their licences to drivers, or they will be treated as investments and sold for a profit. As such, the taxi industry quite literally cannot grow.

In recent years, the biggest change to the industry—aside from cab model changes to bigger and more accessible vehicles—has been the rise of the Uber industry. As of now, all attempts of Uber to enter the Hong Kong market has been met with protests from the taxi community, but there is no denying that Uber has been operating under a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement. More and more drivers are considering entering the Uber community, where higher cost is sometimes seen as a cleaner and safer alternative to the health-conscious public, along with an assurance of good service. Any Hongkonger can tell you a horror story in dealing with taxis, with aggressive starts and stops and sudden U-turns. And yet, Hong Kong taxis seem to be more than just transport, offering something that Uber cannot: history.

The majority of Hong Kong taxi drivers are middle-aged men, either having made a career out of driving or have been forced into retirement and are looking for something to keep themselves active and occupied. For many of them, it is not just a source of livelihood, but also socialising, offering their vast knowledge of local culture and history to natives and tourists alike. 

The big players in establishing the industry have left their fingerprints all over the map of Hong Kong, setting up companies and properties to play a role in designing the famous skyline. The fact that the Hong Kong taxi industry was born at the start of the Second World War, surviving Japanese occupation, British colonialism, and the 1997 Handover, indicates that it would take a lot to knock the red-green-blue cabs out of relevancy.

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Grace Chong

Editorial intern

Having grown up in a creative community, Grace can often be found taking photos, journaling on train and bus rides, and writing poems to her friends. She is fond of asking friends, family members, and strangers personal questions about their happiness and mental health. If she could ask the whole world a question, it would be, “What was the last thing that made you laugh?” She is an avid fan of Radiolab, Mamamoo, volleyball, and Shin Ramen.

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