It’s 6am when a Buick stops in front of the mansion-styled gates to one of Shenzhen’s most affluent neighborhoods. Three people in T-shirts, and toting suitcases, enter the vehicle. A crime has just been committed.
“Both my husband and I work as unlicensed taxis,” the woman behind the wheel says as she drives the family to the airport. “We’ve been at this job since 2007 – that’s 10 years now.”
Li is one of the neighborhoods’ high-end ‘black cab’ drivers.
With a group she estimates at about ten, she provides rides on call to well-heeled customers willing to pay extra for convenience – think pilots, businessmen and anyone else who can afford to live in the mountain-side estate.
She may be driving a slick looking Buick GL8, but the job is unregulated, untaxed and illegal. Getting caught, and potentially fined several months salary, is a daily risk.
And working 14 hours every day makes close calls with police crackdowns inevitable.
Li’s husband was stopped by police a year ago.
To sniff out black cabs, officers stop suspect cars and ask drivers the names of their passengers. Fines can stretch up to RMB100,000.
“He managed to make up a story on the spot – saying that he was asked to drop off my friends at the airport.”
Li mentions that another driver wasn’t so lucky, getting slammed with fines equal to two months wages.
But for all the risk, there is also reward, with Li saying she earns up to RMB20,000 monthly. Compare that to a normal taxi, with a China Daily article reporting wages at RMB4,000 in 2016, and a Shenzhen driver recently reporting RMB9,000 per month.
“Ten years ago, where I worked, the taxi system was very inconvenient,” Li says, describing a management job in a gated community that saw her battle daily to set up taxi service for residents.
“It finally got to a point where I thought this could be my opportunity.”
So she made the leap. And it paid off. Big.
Pooling RMB110,000, she and her husband bought a 2007 Honda City. During her first years she took home RMB40,000 a month.
Facing competition from ride-hailing apps, Li has seen her income halved, but a stream of regulars allow her and her husband to earn more than enough to support her 17-year-old son and adopted dogs.
It may not be the work that Li expected to be doing, but she says she doesn’t regret it.
“And to think, with my husband’s training as a chef and mine in management,” she says, “we could have opened a hotel instead.”
[Image via Sharing Venice]