I finished dinner in Causeway Bay and hailed a taxi outside the Excelsior Hotel. The driver was a middle-aged man with grizzled hair and a penchant for small talk. Small talk is not my thing, much less with a stranger at the end of a long day. As I was disentangling my earphones to signal my desire for a quiet ride, the driver said something that piqued my interest.
|Conversation with Mr. Lau|
“Look at this mess,” he complained, pointing at the snarled traffic on Gloucester Road. “We had 79 days of heaven and now we are back in hell.”
I wasn’t sure if I had heard him right. My impression was like everyone else’s – that taxi drivers were upset with the Umbrella Movement because main arteries like Harcourt Road and Nathan Road had been occupied. And for those who are in the business of moving people around, blocked streets mean bad business.
“How do you mean?” I probed, glancing at his ID on the dashboard. His name was Lau.
“I mean business was much better during the protests,” Mr. Lau declared.
“I was told your income fell by 15 to 30% because the streets were blocked.” I remembered reading those figures in the paper.
“That’s a load of crap,” he said. “For 79 days, I worked less and made more. Who doesn’t like that?”
|Taxi drivers demanding Harcourt Road to be reopened|
“You need to explain to me how that worked, because that’s not what we think happened.”
“It’s simple. Traffic was way better during the protests. There were no double-deckers taking up multiple lanes, and more people took taxis because buses and mini-buses were re-routed.”
“But wasn’t it a big hassle to have to go around the protest sites?”
“It was confusing the first couple of days but people quickly adapted. Say, if I were to go eastbound from Sai Ying Poon to Causeway Bay, I would take Lung Wo Road and bypass the protest zone in Admiralty.” He proceeded to give me a few more examples of how drivers would dodge the occupied areas by taking alternate routes, both on the Hong Kong side and in Kowloon.
“And there’s one more thing,” Mr. Lau continued to enlighten me. “With so much police presence everywhere, we had fewer idiots double-parking or unloading stuff where they weren’t supposed to. Drivers were on their best behavior and many people simply left their cars at home to avoid trouble.”
|Taxi drivers parked on tram tracks to protest against protestors|
“Exactly how much better was business?” I pressed, wanting details.
“On average, I made about $300 more every day.”
“What percentage is that compared to what you made before or after the protests?”
“Well, I pull in roughly $1,200 on a good day and $800 on a slow one. So my income went up by more than 30% during those 11 or so weeks.”
“You said you had worked less to make more. It doesn’t seem to add up.”
“Why not? With better traffic and a constant flow of customers, my meter jumped faster. I could finish my shift two to three hours early on most nights.”
“Was it just you or was it the case for everyone else?”
“We all drive on the same streets. Why would I be any different from the next cab driver?”
|After 79 days, things are now back to "normal"|
I shook my head in disbelief, shoving my still tangled earphones back into my bag. I recalled images of irate taxi drivers charging at student protestors and taking down their barricades, all because their livelihood had been ruined by traffic disruptions.
“If what you said is true, then who were those angry cab drivers filing for court injunctions and punching their fists in the air?”
“Even my wife cringed when she saw that on television. Those were hired guns, of course. The whole thing was staged. Those guys were paid $1,500 for a day’s work. I’m too old to do that sort of thing, and so I didn’t take the offer. If I were younger, perhaps I would have considered.”
“How did they ask you, by Whatsapp or SMS?”
“Heck, no! That would be too obvious. One of the large taxi companies made verbal offers to us.” He mentioned a company name I had not heard of. Taxi companies aren’t exactly household names.
“I had no idea. I thought it was just a conspiracy theory,” I confessed.
“That’s what the Communists do best. Lies and more lies.” Mr. Lau made his first political statement in our conversation. It would also be his last.
“I’m not a political person, you see. I just want to make money to pay off my mortgage and send my children overseas for a good education. I want them to be as far away from this rotten place as possible.”
Mr. Lau went on with his doomsday pessimism: “Hong Kong is a place to make money. Once you have made enough, you get out and never come back. That’s what all the politicians do as well. Look at C.Y. Leung – all his children are studying abroad.”
|They've been framed|
He was starting to veer off topic and I wanted to bring the conversation back to the Umbrella Movement. “If the protests were good for business,” I asked, “then does it mean you support the students?”
“I don’t support anybody. I’m just an ordinary person trying to make a honest living.” He heaved a sigh and continued, “I’m just telling you what I see. Traffic was great for 79 days and now things are back to ‘normal,’ the normal traffic jams that had cost me over an hour tonight to go from Diamond Hill to Causeway Bay before I picked you up at the Excelsior.”
“Then, Mr. Lau, you must tell every passenger what you have just told me! You should phone in to a radio show or talk to a reporter.” I urged. “Everyone believed what they saw on the news and blamed the students for things they didn’t do. That’s not fair to them!”
“Look, I’m not an activist and I need to be careful whom I talk to. You look like a nice enough guy and so I assume you aren’t one of those Blue Ribbons. I don’t want any trouble...”
That’s when I saw my apartment building and interrupted Mr. Lau: “Wait, sorry, turn left at the traffic lights please.” I gave him a better-than-usual tip and thanked him for the conversation. He thanked me in return and waved goodbye before pulling off.
I went home and turned on my computer. I decided to do what Mr. Lau did not want to do – I would tell everyone what he had told me. It was the right thing to do.