“The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China” by Frank Langfitt

Taxi

In 2006, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman penned a now-notorious column titled “The Taxi Driver”. In it, Friedman recounts a cab ride from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in which, to Friedman’s disappointment, the driver neglects to engage in conversation with his eminent passenger.

It was a pity, Friedman wrote: “He was a young, French-speaking African, who probably had a lot to tell me.” He goes on to relate the story of his journey to a French journalist friend, who observes: “I guess the era of foreign correspondents quoting taxi drivers is over. The taxi driver is now too busy to give you a quote!” Friedman has spent the years since living down the column and the reputation it cultivated for him as a man reliant on foreign taxi drivers for their authentic wisdom.

Yet, the relationship between a taxi driver and their passenger is an unusual one. It is rare to be in such enforced proximity with such a total stranger; someone whom we know nothing about and will never see again—someone, indeed, with whom you are unlikely even to make genuine eye-contact. Opinions can be aired, confessions vouchsafed, plans discussed.

In 2014, Frank Langfitt, an experienced China correspondent then covering the country for NPR, decided to turn the relationship to his advantage and invert Friedman’s approach; he would be the driver, and the subjects his passengers: “What better way to encourage people who are naturally shy with reporters to speak candidly?”

He had signs made for his cab, naming it the “Free Loving Heart Taxi” (which, as he observes, sounds better in Chinese than in English) and emblazoning it with the slogan “Make Shanghai friends, Chat about Shanghai Life”.

 

The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China, Frank Langfitt (Orion, PublicAffairs, June 2019)
The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China, Frank Langfitt (Orion, PublicAffairs, June 2019)

People’s curiosity (and no doubt the frequent shortage of taxis in Shanghai) won out over their suspicions. The passengers he picked up, and who form the subjects of The Shanghai Free Taxi, were diverse in age, economic background, ambition—but all were united in that they were making their way in this most recent iteration of New China: that of Xi Jinping and his China Dream.

Langfitt’s approach of offering in-depth portraits of subjects drawn from across the spectrum of Chinese life will feel familiar to anyone who has read books such as Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition or fellow NPR reporter Rob Schmitz’s Street of Eternal Happiness. When done well, as it is here, this mode of storytelling offers a manageable way into the complexities of the country. It is also a genre that, predictably given its roots in journalism, freezes a particular moment in time, and hence almost demands that, as China changes, writers compose new variations on its theme.

Langfitt is particularly good at slotting his subjects into the specifics of this Chinese and global era. His current post is as NPR’s London correspondent, so he has had a front row seat at the rise of English nationalism represented by Brexit, while Donald J Trump also casts his inescapable shadow over the book. President Xi, though in an established tradition of nationalistic leaders in China, is part of this global story of narrowing self-interest, and the changes he has wrought in Chinese life since taking charge in 2012 have been profound. In particular, through insidious propaganda, Xi has established a cult of personality as pervasive, if less overt, than that of Mao Zedong.

Langfitt starts with the story of Rocky and Charles, whom he drives home to Hubei province for Chinese New Year and Rocky’s wedding. At one point during the wedding celebrations, the village dance troupe perform, ending with a song entitled “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama”, a tribute to Xi Jinping and his celebrity wife Peng Liyuan:

 

China produced an Uncle Xi,
He dares to fight the tigers.
Not afraid of heaven, not afraid of earth,
People want to see him even in their dreams!

 

The centrality of dreams in the rhetoric of Xi’s China is notable, not just for its echoes of the American Dream, but also for the false implication it carries that his rule is somehow about unleashing personal ambition. In fact, Xi’s Chinese Dream is not about the individual at all, but rather takes as its self-declared aim the restoration of the Chinese nation to its rightful place in the world order. One of the attendees at Rocky’s wedding bemoans the totalising nature of Xi’s political philosophy, setting out instead his own modest dream of “ordinary Chinese living with dignity and respect, having the freedom to pursue their own goals and make China a better country in their own way.” It is a seemingly utopian ideal in Xi’s China.

 

The compelling story of Charles—the other passenger hitching a ride on this Spring Festival journey—is of a different form of disillusionment. A salesman at the book’s beginning, he later ends up working as a journalist’s assistant, and becomes embroiled in a media controversy after accusing his Western boss (accurately, it turns out) of fabricating reports: a narrative twist which leaves Charles disillusioned and allows Langfitt to explore the under-told story of those Chinese fixers and assistants who are so essential to foreign correspondents in China.

Perhaps the most memorable tale in The Shanghai Free Taxi is, however, that of Crystal and Winnie. Crystal is a Chinese-American woman whose sister, Winnie, disappeared in 2013 in southern Yunnan province. Having been contacted by Crystal, the author becomes embroiled in a story which reveals, as he puts it, “the dark side of the Chinese Dream”.

Winnie had arrived in Yunnan escaping a life of sex work in the country’s north east, and Langfitt travels to the southern borderlands with Crystal to try to tease back together the broken threads of her life, uncovering a poisonous and adulterous romantic entanglement which seems to provide the most likely explanation for her disappearance. Beyond this, Winnie’s fate remains a mystery; she is simply too insignificant for the authorities to take much of an interest, and NPR’s security advisors suggest that Langfitt has waded as far as would be wise into these particular waters.

Back in Shanghai, the author consults a private investigator named Wei who tells him that Winnie is likely dead; her home on the edge of the Golden Triangle is a place where drugs are rife and people can be easily disappeared. For Wei, and for Langfitt, Winnie’s story is a fitting morality tale for Xi’s China: “China’s huge economic success has concealed people’s failing morals and spiritual degradation,” he tells Langfitt. “Its exterior looks shiny and splendid and the entire world is watching, but actually its inside is rotten to the core.”

Winnie’s is not a tale told as a casual cab-ride chat, and in reality the book is only loosely held together by the conceit of the “Free Loving Heart Taxi”. Yet, Langfitt is an amiable, informed correspondent, and there is much to enjoy here for those looking to learn about modern China: for anyone in a Beijing-bound cab from the airport, forget about probing your cabbie for some home-spun authentic wisdom, and enjoy a few chapters of The Shanghai Free Taxi instead.


Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin.