by Susan Blumberg-Kason
Frank Langfitt, The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China, Public Affairs, 2019. 321 pgs.
In May of this year, I found myself in a Shanghai taxi, inching along a highway from Pudong Airport on a Sunday at lunchtime. The traffic was relentless, but we weren’t on the road for very long before I had told the driver my life story and why my nine-year-old son and I were in Shanghai for a few days (to visit my older son, who was studying there for the year).
I very much enjoyed speaking to the cab driver and learning about all the changes in the city since I had last visited Shanghai—or mainland China—four years earlier. By the time we reached the hotel, we parted just like long-term friends, and I thanked him for the ride and conversation.
Journalist Frank Langfitt learnt the benefits of taxi conversations while working as a driver before he started college decades ago: “Once the passengers stepped inside … the taxi became like a cozy corner bar. For a few miles or a long ride, customers talked about whatever was on their minds and what they really cared about: work, children, marriage and their futures. For an aspiring journalist like me, it was ideal on-the-job training. My passengers often shared personal thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement and, occasionally, I saw them at their most vulnerable.”
In 2014, while Langfitt was a US National Public Radio (NPR) journalist in Shanghai, he rented a car and took along his news assistant, Yang, and attached metallic signs to his car, advertising free rides in exchange for conversation. This method of interviewing obviously worked out well because Langfitt recently published The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China. He also reported on these conversations for NPR.
Most of the eighteen people he writes about in The Shanghai Free Taxi were in their thirties or forties at the time he interviewed them. And most he met through his taxi, but some found him through his NPR stories. Langfitt wasn’t a China novice when he started his free taxi; he had reported from Beijing in 1997 for five years. His introduction to China came at the end of the Deng era and when he returned—this time to Shanghai—in 2011, it was just before the start of the Xi era. His comparisons of old and new China are informative and accurate, especially when it comes to infrastructure and surveillance.
In the late 1990s, Langfitt travelled by slow train over Chinese New Year and suffered through freezing nights without any heat. The heat situation may not have changed much in rural areas, but train travel is now some of the most efficient and rapid in the world. And back in the 1990s China didn’t have the surveillance technology that’s so prevalent now. Without Langfitt’s earlier experience in China, this book wouldn’t have been as enlightening as it is.
A few of his interviewees stood out and significantly moved the narrative forward. Charles is a US-educated manager from Hubei province that Langfitt drove home for Chinese New Year at the beginning of the book. After Charles and Langfitt became friends, Langfitt’s editorial assistant, Yang, recommended that Charles apply for a news assistant position with a Dutch newspaper. News assistants are crucial to foreign correspondents in China because they often serve as diplomats, translators, interpreters, research assistants and interviewers. After a couple years, Charles told Langfitt that his boss had plagiarised one of Langfitt’s articles and had fabricated other stories. Charles idealised the freedoms in the United States and decided to blow the whistle on his boss. Surely a Western newspaper would be incensed by an unethical correspondent. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Charles almost became blacklisted by the Western press in China. Langfitt reported on this incident objectively for the most part, but it’s evident that he was sympathetic to Charles when other foreign correspondents were not. Langfitt and his news assistant, Yang, also fact-checked Charles’ boss’s stories that plagiarised Langfitt and sent proof of the boss’s fabrications. But instead of firing the Dutch correspondent, the newspaper gave him a nice send-off and excused his plagiarism as the result of stress and China burnout.
This story and others showed that the West is just as flawed as China. Langfitt is far from a China apologist, but he does a great job of not romanticising the West, unlike some China watchers. Ashley is another Chinese professional Langfitt interviewed, but met her through a post on NPR asking for Chinese nationals to write in about The Great Gatsby a few years before he started driving the taxi. Ashley graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in China and worked in Beijing before moving to Chicago to do her MBA. The daughter of high-level Communist Party members, Ashley viewed the U.S. as utopian compared to all the restrictions in China, namely around critical thinking and freedom of information. Langfitt visited Ashley in Chicago, and also in Paris when she studied abroad for her MBA program. By that time, Langfitt had left Shanghai for a posting in London. From her experiences in the U.S. and Paris, Ashley became disillusioned by the West. In contrast to these countries, China to Ashley seemed more forward-thinking and assertive when it came to business opportunities. She knew she needed to make a decision about where to settle down, and both China and the West had equal amounts of pros and cons.
But not all the women Langfitt interviewed enjoy a privileged life. Crystal listened to NPR in Michigan, where she had immigrated from China. She enjoyed Langfitt’s reports from China and contacted him about her missing sister, Winnie. Langfitt agreed to drive Chrystal to several cities where Winnie was last seen before she disappeared in southwest China, right near the drug and human trafficking hub of the Golden Triangle where Laos, Thailand and Burma meet. The police showed no interest in this case, which only caused Langfitt and Chrystal to look further into Winnie’s disappearance. The two learnt that Winnie was married twice—both for short amounts of time—before she disappeared, but her true love was a married man named Cao. Crystal travelled all over China on the trail she and Langfitt believed Winnie followed before her disappearance. The two uncovered more and more of Winnie’s past, but at some point, NPR told Langfitt to cease his investigation because it was becoming dangerous. This story was the saddest in the book.
Although most of the people Langfitt interviewed didn’t know one another and had little to no connection, they make up a comprehensive narrative of New China. Langfitt provided plenty of comparisons between China’s assent and the West’s descent, including the rise of the Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. He feels optimistic about the younger generations in China but worries about the ramifications of US and China policy on both countries.
One of the most hopeful quotes was from a lawyer named Ray, who grew up in Hubei province, not too far from the news assistant Charles. Langfitt mentions this quote twice in his book, including at the very end. “If 1.4 billion people’s creativity is mobilised, everyone does things they like and lives with dignity. If this comes true, it will be a blessing for the country. It will also be a remarkable thing for the world.”
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)