Yesterday I heard a story on the radio that made no sense. Two passengers took a taxi from the airport to Lok Ma Chau, the Hong Kong border with the Mainland. Along the way, the two passengers realized that the Hong Kong dollars they had would not be enough to pay for the fare. When they got to the destination, a dispute ensued and the enraged taxi driver drove off with the passengers' suitcases and threw them in a nullah. (A "nullah" is one of those interesting words in Hong Kong English [and perhaps it exists elsewhere in the Commonwealth, but not in the US] that means drainage canal or ditch. In present-day Hong Kong, nullahs are all cement-lined. With all the rain we've had recently, they are all full of water).
The story left me perplexed: how could a taxi driver get so angry?!
Today I read the story in the newspaper, and got more details. Now I understand how such an incident could happen. Not that the taxi driver was right, but the story makes sense, and is not an odd and bizarre tale.
The key pieces of information that were left out of the radio story were: 1) one of the passengers was a Mainlander; 2) he tried to pay in RMB; 3) the taxi driver wanted a HK$1 = 1 RMB exchange rate, when the official and market rate is 1 RMB = 0.79 RMB; 4) the Mainlander refused.
The Mainland passenger offered to pay 0.90 RMB to the HK$, but the taxi driver refused. At the official exchange rate, the HK$280 fare should have cost 220 RMB, and the passenger was offering 250 RMB. How could a difference of RMB 30 (less than US$5) lead to such a dispute which found the taxi driver hurling the passengers' suitcases with HK$60,000 in electronic and photographic equipment into a nullah?!
Here's how. From the Mainland passenger's point of view, the RMB is "real money" and he sees Hong Kong as a part of China so he thinks the taxi driver should accept RMB. He feels he is compromising by offering 12 percent more than the actual fare. Plus, he is splitting the difference between the actual 0.79 rate and the 1 to 1 equivalency that the driver wanted.
But from the taxi driver's point of view, here is a traveler who is expecting him to accept a foreign currency. Since when do clients insist on paying in foreign currencies? The arrogance! Sure, Hong Kong is part of China, but he cannot go to his local supermarket or 7-11 and pay with RMB. Only shops that cater to Mainland tourists in accept RMB in Hong Kong. In fact, it is not uncommon in shops selling candy, newspapers and trinkets at the train station, for example, to charge 1 RMB for 1 HK. It is a hassle for the driver to accept "foreign" currency (and it is foreign for him) that he has to convert somewhere in order to use it. And when he goes to covert the money, he will be charged a commission on that conversion. If the passenger is careless enough to travel without enough Hong Kong money, he should expect to pay a bit more for the currency exchange. The exchange kiosks in the airport charge a lot more than the official rate, in fact.
Thus, a story that initially seemed senseless and bizarre is in fact just one more chapter in the ongoing saga of Hong Kongers vs Mainlanders, with both sides not really understanding the other, and convinced the other is not respecting them. The Mainlander is quoted in the SCMP as saying, "I thought Hong Kong was safer than the Mainland. I never thought this kind of thing would happen in Hong Kong." He views this as a case of "disorder" or even lawlessness, and does not see how he created half the dispute.
The taxi driver was originally charged with stealing the luggage, but claims he tossed it in the nullah in a rage. It will be interesting to see if they do find it in the nullah, or in a pawn shop. It is possible, after all, that the possibility of stealing the luggage was also part of the reason the dispute developed like this. Though Hong Kong taxi drivers are overwhelmingly honest, the newspaper article does note a few cases of cheats and frauds that got caught. One thing Hong Kong does have is inspectors who take taxis to test for honesty. That is in part why the story of this fight seemed so preposterous and bizarre when I first heard the partial outline on the radio.
And now you know, the rest of the story.