Alec Ash is a writer based in China and the author of “Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China.”
It’s often said that only a lazy journalist reports a story through the eyes of a cabdriver. That may be true everywhere but in China. Here, where a century’s worth of development has been squeezed into decades, cabbies have had a front-row seat to the country’s dizzying changes, and have some of the best anecdotes and the most interesting views of the country’s transformation. Wherever in China I am, I always look for drivers whose ID numbers indicate they’ve been on the road at least a decade; they are always worth striking up a conversation with.
In “The Shanghai Free Taxi,” NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt puts a new twist on the cabbie narrative: He becomes the driver. Langfitt rents, and later buys, a car to drive people around Shanghai and further afield, in exchange only for their stories. (This arrangement came about after he tried to become a registered cabdriver but local taxi companies blocked him.) He meets and follows a range of people, weaving their perspectives into his own commentary on China’s high-speed trajectory. The result is an engaging and dynamic narrative that offers readers an unusual perspective on modern China.
Langfitt shows us a Shanghai rich in contrasts — from glitzy law offices and Maserati dealerships to country migrants living in shoe-box-size apartments. Yet Langfitt’s passengers have one thing in common: a desire to improve their lot in life. “Now that many Chinese people had at least some wealth,” he observes, “they wanted more, not just materially but spiritually and psychologically.”
One of his earliest passengers, a pajama salesman named Chen, is a case in point. He came to Shanghai from the provinces to earn money, belongs to an underground Christian church and later moves to America to give his daughter a less-pressured education. Langfitt also interacts with those less well-off who are seeking meaning, such as Max, a migrant who cuts the hair of elderly shut-ins for free, and Sarah, a cleaner who struggles in the midst of the big city’s inequities.
The most dramatic story is that of Crystal, a Chinese American who enlists Langfitt’s help to track down her sister, Winnie, who has gone missing in the hinterlands of southwestern China. A former waitress turned prostitute and mistress, Winnie escaped with her savings to become a landlady, then married a rubber-tree tapper near the Laos border who became abusive, before she disappeared without a trace. Crystal fears she has been killed or trafficked, and with Langfitt, she drives to follow the clues of Winnie’s last movements, uncovering secret affairs, police mismanagement and intrigue. Although we never meet Winnie or discover the truth, her tale — including its lack of resolution — is a haunting fable of one person’s dreams lost in an uncaring society.
At times, the free taxi rides — some of which formed a series of Langfitt’s radio stories for NPR from 2014 to 2016 — feel like a thin conceptual thread to hold the book together. Also, there are too many familiar stories of iconoclastic rebels and a slight overproportion of well-to-do, English-speaking characters, given the milieu of residents in commercialized, cab-hailing Shanghai. By driving farther off the beaten track to pick up passengers, Langfitt might have found more characters whose perspectives truly surprise us.
Much of the material is drawn from the early and mid-2010s, but the latter part of the book includes more recent news items and follow-up interviews. There are well-drawn sections on Chinese views of President Trump and Brexit, as some of the people profiled move to America and Britain. Ashley, an MBA student who arrived in America shortly after Trump’s election, comments: “The sole purpose that drives me from China to America is because I don’t want to live in an authoritarian state anymore. I feel very unlucky for a minute to jump from a very bad place to another very bad place.” Later, her view softens, as she puts her hope in “the American people . . . to try to bring the country back to where it should be.” Other recent immigrants from China, Langfitt observes, “found Trump’s blunt talk a refreshing contrast to the traditional, hypercontrolled public personae of their own leaders,” even if they disagreed with his policies.
In a recent taxi ride in southern China, I told my cabbie about the concept of Langfitt’s book, curious what he thought of a foreign journalist undercutting his rates so dramatically. A former tea farmer who moved to the city to drive when the price of mountain tea fell, he focused entirely on the financial logistics of it: “This person must have reached a high material standard of living,” he said, taking the conceit at face value. “From an economic perspective, I couldn’t do that. In China, I need to drive all day just to support the same material existence as I had before.”
While this cabbie was running to stand still, all around him in China are the trajectories of lives in motion — some racing ahead, others falling under the wheels, as Winnie did. “The Shanghai Free Taxi” offers us a small slice of those stories, in a country with a population just like its cab passengers: going places.
By Frank Langfitt
PublicAffairs. 300 pp. $28