Editor's note: This is the first installment in what we hope will be a long-running series of articles entitled 'Life in Kunming'. The aim of the series is to speak with the people who make the Spring City what it is, who provide the services, and more importantly, the character, of Yunnan's capital city. If you have a suggestion for a profession or a specific person you feel GoKunming should interview, please get in touch through the contact form.
There are 7,151 registered taxicabs in the city of Kunming. Many run non-stop, day and night. These aqua-colored Volkswagens are the most iconic vehicles in the Spring City. The thousands of men and women who drive these taxis are mostly anonymous, though they are people many of us trust and occasionally curse. Recently, GoKunming took a ride in a taxi and spoke with a driver surnamed Chen to try and catch a glimpse from the other side of the front seat's iron curtain.
GoKunming: How long have you been driving a cab?
Chen: I've been doing this for three or four years now. For me it was basically just about making a living. I needed to eat, so I started driving taxis. That's about it.
GK: What do you enjoy most about the job?
Chen: Well it's my job. You do it to get by, right? You make your living. It's like any service job — you have to know how to sweat, and how to take people's shit. People will yell at us — we take it. Does it get on my nerves some? Sure it does. Especially drunks, those are the worst. Believe me I've taken a lot of shit from drunks.
GK: So, is there anything you like about it? Or nothing at all?
Chen: Would I do it if I didn't like it? Probably not. Still, it's my living. If not to live, then why do it? You know what I'm talking about. Everyone does it to live. What else would a driver do in this city? Go into business? Open a restaurant? Get a desk job? Not for us. Our way of life is this. Taxi driving. That's what we're fit for. That's what I do.
GK: How many hours do you work on a typical day?
Chen: Well, besides Saturday — we get one day off a week — the other days I work eight or nine hours. Morning to night. I start at seven-thirty and stop whenever. That's on me. If I feel like taking it easy, I call in early and get some sleep. If I feel like pulling a long day I pull a long day. It's flexible for me because I don't share the taxi with another driver.
GK: How's the pay?
Chen: On the whole I'd say four or five-hundred is the most you'll get, and that's on a good day. On a bad day then...well...you make more or less three hundred kuai. And then think about the gas money, the cut for the company... whatever's left is what I get.
GK: What's the hardest part of your job?
Chen: The hardest part...whenever the sun is shining. I mean when it's really hot and you're sweating buckets in the driver's seat trying to get to shade. That's every driver's worst fear. You'll see us all trying to find shade. Everyone. And if you can't find shade well, that's too bad, you just got to sweat it out.
GK: You must meet a lot of interesting people on this job. Do you recall any?
Chen: I've had every kind of interesting person in my cab. After a while you forget. I've seen just about every kind of person you can think of, you know?
GK: How do people generally treat you?
Chen: They're good. Most people are good, polite, and cause no trouble. And same goes for us, we're good to you back. You tell me where to go and I'll take you there. We don't pull any dirty tricks or anything like that. No way. Definitely not. No, really, look here [Chen rummages through some papers from an overhead box]. We all have a star rating.
All of us have records, and it goes on our star rating. Your job security depends on it. See here, it has my performance record...my accidents, none...City of Kunming...here it says "Peace & Order Taxi". See that? Only 2,000 taxis in the city get that on their card. It means my customers are happy, that I don't mess with their fees. It means I'm a good driver.
GK: Some say taxi drivers aren't so clean. For instance, some foreigners claim Kunming taxi drivers will cheat them of money. What do you...
Chen: ...No way. You don't get away with that. Foreigners are smart, right? They're real smart. They watch your meter, some of them even have directions telling you where to go and all that. Most of them speak Chinese — they're students or teachers here. You don't do that. You don't cheat. Don't even think about it.
GK: Have you ever been in an accident?
Chen: Nope. Never.
GK: Not even a small accident?
Chen: Well, come on — a little bump here or a little scratch there, everybody has those. All taxi drivers. If it's not you pushing him it's the other guy pushing you and there's really no preventing it. It's not so easy being a driver. If you're careless in Kunming, even for a split second, something's gonna happen.
GK: What would you do in a bigger accident?
Chen: Depends on how serious. If it's not so serious you just talk it over with them, work out a deal, don't go to the police. If it's big then you take it to the insurance company. If you don't have insurance then you shouldn't be driving a cab.
GK: What do you think about DiDi DaChe?
Chen: DiDi Da, yeah — it's pretty alright. It's a good deal for us drivers. I get more customers, well, potential customers. I can choose to pick them up, or I can choose to not bother. Anyways, it's convenient for me.
GK: So how does DiDi work, exactly?
Chen: See this black box? That tells me when someone's close by. Do you have a WeChat account? You can use your WeChat to call a taxi wherever you are, and all the taxis in Kunming will get a voice on their black box. It tells me where you are, and how far, a hundred, 500 meters. Any taxi can pick you up. But if I decide to pick you up, I press this. And when I'm on the way there, I can't just pick up anyone on the street. I have to get to you. Understand?
GK: What do you think of the new hydrogen-powered and hybrid taxis?
Chen: Haven't tried either one yet. Who knows? I won't know until I've tried one. I hear they're a pain. I hear you have to drive back to the station and charge some of them every couple of hours. Every charge takes awhile. What driver has that kind of free time?
GK: What's the most important thing you've learned from taxi driving?
Chen: Safety. Safety all the way. Especially with passengers in your car — forget about the money. It's always safety.
GK: What about your family? Do you have any kids?
Chen: Oh yeah. [Chen turns over his nameplate on the dashboard and points at the name on the other side] That's him. My son. Twenty-six this year. Good-looking kid, right? He's a taxi driver too. I raised him to be a driver. Myself, I used to be a truck driver. I did that for seventeen, eighteen years before I did this. See this? I still have my A-Class license.
GK: Any plans for the future?
Chen: Keep driving. Keep driving until they make me stop. The law says you have to stop driving at age sixty, so I still have four more years to go. And then...well...it's on my son after that. They'll retire my car when I retire and give my son the new Jetta. Maybe the new Santana. Anyway, my car retires when I do. Out with the old in with the new, am I right?