In recent weeks I enjoyed one fabulous Uber ride and one fake Uber ride. One was in Hong Kong with a worldly-cool Uber driver and the other was in Shenzhen with an enterprising, but dawdling, fake Uber driver.
Why was I bothering with Uber in my seemingly taxi-dense corner of the world? Because red (urban) taxis would rather fly to Mars than pick up passengers in Tai Po during peak times. Trying to get a red taxi to come to my neighborhood in Tai Po during rush hours goes something like this: (1) call taxi dispatcher; (2) explain New Territories location and Hong Kong Island destination; (3) dispatcher puts out a request to taxi network; (4) no red taxis respond; (5) dispatcher says, “no taxi, call back later;” (6) repeat ten billion times.
Compared to this process, Uber was sweet. Uber-driver-Brian came within minutes, used a nice clean car and drove smoothly, safely and efficiently. Strangely, Brian was a law student planning to specialize in corporate business law. He spent most of the drive chatting about his various platinum membership cards. Why was he driving for Uber? God knows. My best guess is that he uses it to gather material for some super-secret, tell-all Hong Kong Twitter feed.
So this slick Uber experience was fresh in my mind when several days later I emerged from a Walmart in Shenzhen with friends in the pouring rain. (Why was I at Walmart in Shenzhen? I was elbowing with the locals to buy traditional Chinese New Year children’s clothes at cheap prices.)
Anyway, we needed a ride back to the Hong Kong border and there were no taxis in sight. We spotted an Uber sign and moved in for a closer look. An old man pointed to the Uber sign, pointed to himself, pointed to his tiny car and smiled. His price was fair, so the three of us hopped in.
In retrospect it is unclear to me why we didn’t stop to consider that Uber is an app-based system and that random old men driving tiny Chery QQs in Shenzhen are not Uber drivers.
Once in the car, our driver immediately phoned a friend in order to figure out where we three foreigners wanted to be taken. As we had asked to be taken to a major border crossing — a key destination for both tourists and locals — this was our big tip-off that he was not a proper Uber driver but rather a 山寨司機 (saan zaai si gei) or copy-driver.
But there were three of us together, it was the middle of the day and he seemed like a friendly copy-driver, so once he seemed sure of the destination, we set off secure in the belief that he was just some old guy looking to make a little extra cash before Chinese New Year and was not involved in back alley kidney thievery.
We should have just walked.
Slowly, very slowly we headed toward the border. We were passed by cars, we were passed by taxis, we were passed by buses, we were passed by street sweepers on foot. We looked at our watches. My friend commented that if we sneezed, we’d go backwards.
Eventually we could just see the border crossing and became jubilant, but then copy-driver took a sudden wrong turn, a turn — his fastest maneuver of the journey — which was uncorrectable without a great deal of trouble and time.
Some time later, copy-driver drove against posted traffic signs, into a restricted bus terminal and dropped us close-ish to the border, kidneys intact.
The take aways: (1) Based on one experience, real Uber could be pretty useful. (2) Random old men, even if they are standing near Uber signs, are still just random old men.