Calling All Chinese Cars
When foreigners are walking along the streets of Zhuhai, China and especially while standing at bus stops they often hear a barrage of honking horns. It’s not a friendly hello or welcome to China greeting. It’s actually drivers looking for business.
The locals call them the “black cars” for two reasons. Often they are black in color. But in this case, black primarily means illegal.
These are drivers who usually do not have the required licenses like taxis to transport passengers. So they operate at their own risk. That “roll of the dice” can have serious consequences. One driver transporting a United International College colleague to the port had his car impounded by the police. Plus he was fined thousands of RMB, the Chinese currency. Once the police saw money changing hands, that was all the proof they needed to make their move.
Still, even with the threat of police action, many motorists are willing to take a chance. They are certain locations swarming with the cars. One is at the port area. They aggressively fight among themselves for arrivals off the ferry. Several times a day, the boat brings in people from the Hong Kong Airport. The mobile businessmen wait to pounce on their “prey”. Foreigners are a favorite target. That’s because they often can be charged more than the normal rate.
These cars are not metered like taxis .The price is whatever they say it is. So visitors have no idea what a fair price should be. As tourists leave the port building, the scene looks a lot like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange with lots of bodies in your face frantically yelling and jockeying for position. Once they find out a destination, the bidding war begins.
If you reject one driver’s price, another will quickly voice a lower one. Then they grab onto you to steer you towards their car. It’s almost as if to say, “Since my price is better, surely you want to use me!” Sometimes a couple of drivers will pull on you at the same time.
Price gouging is a persistent problem. The fare from the port to my apartment complex (a common destination) should be about 50 RMB…roughly 9 American dollars. Yet, on many occasions drivers try to get double that figure. I roll my eyes, ask “are you out of your mind?” and walk away. Then the price magically drops. They usually do not understand English but they quickly can comprehend displeasure from the body language.
The savvy drivers understand a share of the arrivals are regular riders who know fares. So they offer a fair rate without all the haggling. Those guys generally get the job right away.
Another popular spot is near my college UIC and Beijing Normal University. Since the schools are both fairly far from shopping and other amenities, a stop and go bus ride of an hour or more can be long as well as annoying. So they line up near the bus stop hoping to attract the student customers. Sometimes they have a wife or girl friend” hawking” their service. In Chinese, they speak of popular shopping spots they’ll take you to or low rates. But that low price can be a con as well. Unsuspecting students have been charged per person instead of the usual car rate regardless of how many people are in the vehicle. Several students sharing can make the price worthwhile.
Since students usually do like to share, a van is typically the most common sight here. The pupil prospects arrive in droves and plenty of cars are parked here to capitalize on the crowds. I suppose it’s to be expected the drivers have to be aggressive. Unlike a taxi, it’s not always obvious they’re available for hire. But it is in watching them trying to “hook their fish”.
Some drivers smartly print out business cards and cultivate a regular clientele. They make it a point of being available at prime business times like weekends and evenings. To attract the foreign customer, it helps to have reasonable English skills…but not always. A former UIC administrator liked the fact that his regular driver’s command of our language was limited. The driver could communicate enough to meet his needs. But not comprehend confidential conversations involving academic matters!