By on March 18, 2013

Fong’s Taxi looked just like this.

The container yard stretched out into the distance as far as the eye could see. Next to the ship, three giant cranes worked at a feverish pace, plucking the 40 foot long containers from their racks, lifting them high into the air and depositing them onto one of an endless stream of flat-bed trucks below at a rate of around one every minute. The loaded trucks raced their engines and sped off into the yard where they were met by other machines, immense forklifts, that removed the containers and piled them in stacks six or seven units high. The stacks, numbering in the tens of thousands, merged with one another to form great flat topped mesas of multicolored steel cut by valleys of cement and the industrial landscape rivaled anything that nature could create with stone and water. It was a scene I had looked upon many times and it could have been a container port anywhere in the world. Only the stench of told me it was Kaohsiung Taiwan.

Given the weight of the cargo filled containers, the scale of the equipment and the frenetic pace of the activity below, the opportunity for death at the bottom of the gangway was obvious. But after crossing the Central Pacific by way of Hawaii and Guam, and with a 12 day return run to Seattle looming ahead, there was no way that I, or any other self-respecting sailor, was going to stay aboard ship. If necessary, I would have walked out to the front gate and tried to flag down a ride, but fortunately, the port authority in Kaohsiung understood the situation and allowed a number of taxis into the yard. Sure enough, there at the foot of the gangway waited a battered green taxi owned by a driver we knew as Fong.

Normally there were several taxis on the pier and while each of us had our personal favorite we were united in our disdain for Fong. In retrospect, Fong had to have been smarter than he let on. He spoke fairly fluent English and probably made a good living, but he always seemed like a huckster and a ride with him was an opportunity for him to bombard you with unwanted advice about where you should drink and with whom you should meet. Of course, every driver was in cahoots with one or more of the establishments along Kao-Suing’s version of skid row but when you rode with Fong, no matter where you asked to be dropped, you always found yourself deposited directly in front of his chosen establishment.

I was anxious to get uptown and with no other options in sight, I reluctantly climbed into the passenger seat of the much abused Toyota. We haggled for a minute about the cost of the ride but with the exchange rate firmly on my side I honestly didn’t try too hard. The deal struck, he mashed the gas and we roared off into the night while I was still fumbling around for a seat belt.

Fong handled the car with careless ease, one hand on the column mounted stick shift and the other grabbing a wheel mounted suicide knob. We slowed just barely at the port gate and then rolled out onto a wide, four lane road that ran around the perimeter of the yard and towards the town proper. As we neared the city limits the traffic became a mix of large trucks, cars and small motor scooters all moving along without regard for one another. The sheer number of two wheeled machines on the road was stunning and they flitted about going every which way without any rhyme or reason, their operators seemingly indifferent to their own survival. Fong treated them like obstacles, whipping the wheel as he changed lanes to avoid them and once even ducking into the lane reserved specifically for them to pass a car on the right. I stared in awe at an entire family rolling along on a tired Honda scooter, the father at the controls with a young child between his knees, mother behind him with a baby in her arms and grandmother behind her, facing backwards holding a frightened chicken in a wire cage.

Sort of like this!

At a major intersection, in violation of a red light, Fong made an abrupt right turn without using any brakes and seamlessly merged into the cross traffic. Without checking his mirrors, he guided the car into the fast lane and then, as we approached another red light, suddenly swerved into the oncoming lanes to pass cars slowing for the light. The oncoming cars moved over to facilitate his passage without so much as a honking horn and we shot through the gap along the centerline and drove towards the intersection when the worst happened – two semi trucks moving side by side rounded the corner and headed straight for us. With a line of stopped traffic on our right blocking our escape, Fong shifted the car left and straddled the line in the middle of the two oncoming lanes. The truckers both hit their horns and parted just enough to allow us to shoot down the middle with inches to spare.

Compared to that, the rest of the ride was anticlimactic. Five minutes later we rolled to a stop in front of Fong’s chosen bar and sat there in stunned as I dug out my wallet. “You’re crazy!” I shouted at him. “If you drove like that in America,You would go to jail.”

Fong looked at me incredulously, “That’s not true!” he said earnestly. “I know all about America, we watch American TV.”

I stared back, unbelieving as I paid the fare and climbed out of the car. “It’s true!” He shouted after me as I fled into the night. “I know all about American drivers, I watch The Dukes of Hazzard on TV!”

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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20 Comments on “Taiwan Taxi Ride...”

  • avatar

    Cool, a Toyota Crown. I had one of these sitting in my back yard, being stored for a friend. He’s currently swapping a 1 or 2JZ into it.

    It was interesting having it out front of the shop as anyone who stopped by would walk around it for 5 minutes and still wonder what it was because of a lack of any distinguishable bagding.

  • avatar

    Sounds like the Taxistas when I lived in Guatemala , C.A. in 1976 .

    I’m lucky to still be alive as I rode a Moto in that madness….

    I miss that 1937 harley-Davidson EL ‘ KnuckleHead ‘ 61″ .


  • avatar

    Was he wearing shoes and socks? Did the taxi have door cards/carpet/headliner? Was there any upholstery on the seats? Could you see the road through the holes in the floor? Did the car have a muffler? Was there any tread left on the tires? (Indonesian standard for tire replacement is exposed cords) If no to all of these, then this was not a taxi ride from hell.
    EDIT: Did you have to stop and buy gas for the taxi after having coasted into the gas station?

    All of the above are from taxi rides I have experienced. Sometimes there were more than one of these together, but never all.

  • avatar

    Spent years in Taiwan and was recently back for a wedding. They’ve standardized some things (all taxis are yellow and have standard meters) but the drivers … heh. I was in one deliberately barreling the wrong way down a bus lane. And red lights in the rural areas are treated as suggestions. Ahh, memories.

  • avatar

    From Buffalo, NY here also and have travelled to Taiwan with a friend on 4 separate occasions. I can attest to the frenetic traffic and abundance of scooters. My friend from Taiwan was always delivered to school by his Mom on her scooter. He stood on the running board in front of her, facing her and his brother rode on the back. Scooter are everywhere.
    Taiwan is a woderful country. All the culture of China, yet first world, democratic with highly educated and hospitable residents

  • avatar

    Wow, a Toyota Crown 4th generation 1971-1974.
    I used to have a 1970 that looked so much better.
    Unfortunately they had low gearing, so it was thirsty and easy to overrev.

    • 0 avatar

      It would be pretty unusual for a Taiwanese taxi driver to drive a Crown, even an old one. The vast majority of Taiwan taxis tend to be Nissan Sentra/Ford Laser/Toyota Corolla class.

  • avatar

    Cool, a Mk4 Toyota Crown. I’ve always wanted one of those, but it’s amazing how rare they are here now. Then again, I think the AMC Matador outsold them like 10-1 when they were new, which tells you how popular they were.

  • avatar

    Great story Thomas, thanks! Gave me a laugh. This kind of antic is not tolerated anymore in Brazil anymore. Being born in 71, I guess the 80s were the last of the romantic period. Traffic is much more congested now, but you don’t see this kind of thing too often. At least in the city!

    • 0 avatar

      I read somewhere a long time ago about how people in some parts of the US romanticize how are big cities were in the 70s. You see them in the old crime dramas – big dirty cities, mostly bankrupt and crime ridden. Looking back, people feel like today’s cities don’t have the same personality. They forget things like parents giving their kids $20 to carry in case they were mugged. They figured a mugger would be happy with $20 and not hurt the kid like he might if he was empty handed. Better times!

  • avatar

    The 1972 Toyota Crown or in the States a Corona MkII. Had Inline Six that was a Mercedes design that Toyota built very smooth like between a Jeep I-6 and a BMW I-6 ran about as fast as 200 CI Ford and top speed was about 105. Not popular as everyone wanted a high MPG Corona with a 4 cylinder. Like now…only Toyota and Nissan were the only reliable game in town competing with Mazda Rotary and Vegas with rickety I-4 that shook like an 80s Peugeot Diesel.

  • avatar

    Kaohsiung must be the wild west of Taiwan. Taipei is pretty civilized as far as driving goes. A few years ago I drove a coworker’s late-80s Nissan B12, five speed, for about a month in and around Taipei and it was similar to driving in any big US city. The two disconcerting things I remember about driving in Taiwan: 1) the lack of shoulders on the mountain roads: apparently due to high rainfall, instead of shoulders there’s a two-foot deep and wide concrete trough just a couple of feet from the road, just waiting to swallow a wheel and, 2) the eight-mile-long Hsuehshan tunnel, connecting Taipei to Yilan: it seemed to never end.

    • 0 avatar

      20 years ago, Kaohsiung WAS the wild west. There was a huge amount of construction going on and Taiwan was in the middle of a construction boom I couldn’t believe. I’m guessing that a lot of the places I used to frequent as a young Merchant Mariner are long gone and forgotten about. We always went to the same street and pretty soon you got to know the all the regular characters.

      I didn’t tell it in the story, but my preferred Taxi driver, an older guy with a new car named Charlie, wasn’t around because he had been arrested for drug smuggling. I didn’t believe it until another driver parked in Charlie’s usual spot showed me a photo in the newspaper of my driver standing in front of a card table filled with brick sized parcels of drugs. I guess he was using his contacts at the port to run stuff from the ships into town. Those were crazy times!

      The Taiwanese people, BTW, were always wonderful to me – all Chinese people have always treated me well for that matter. I love Asia. I can’t wait to get back there.

      • 0 avatar

        Was the scrap metal industry still booming there at the time, or was that already winding down by the early ’90s? At one point in the 70s and 80s, it seemed like Kaohsiung must have accounted for like 90+% of all ship scrapping in the world, before the industry picked up and moved to India and Pakistan. I guess the city’s moved on quite a bit from those days.

        • 0 avatar

          I don’t remember seeing any ship breaking when I was there in the early 90s. It may have been happening, but if so it was far away from the container port – which was a reall modern facility.

          It did seem like there were a lot of scrap yards between the port and the place we went in town, though.

      • 0 avatar

        Lived there, married there, vacation yearly there. Kaohsiung is the second largest city in Taiwan behind Taipei. Kaohsiung is an ash tray. Hot, dirty, stinky. It is also pretty fun. Traffic laws are simply not observed. Even right in from of police, they will do something totally illegal, like driving on the wrong side of the road to pass several cars then brake and take a right turn. Scooters are everywhere and I’ve seen up to 5 people on a scooter, not including the pet cat/dog in the front basket. Most taxis are modern (Toyota Altis popular), unlike in the U.S. Taxi’s actually have to compete for your business and their cars are clean and don’t smell like someone recently got shot in the back seat. The drivers wear no head gear (unlike the U.S.), have no body odor (unlike U.S.) and surprisingly speak some limited English (like the U.S.)Also, taxi’s are numerous, no waiting.
        As a caucasian foreigner you will be treated well with lots of smiling faces. I even got a free baked yam from a street vendor with milk tea.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh yes, Kaohsuing’s drivers can be pretty wild, in my experience. They’ll go barreling down a lane in the wrong way and execute a u-turn in a creative way.

    • 0 avatar

      It was. Over time it’s calmed down, even the taxi drivers (relatively speaking…).

      As larger neighboring countries opened up to the world, they started taking in a lot of the ship traffic that used to go through Kaohsiung, so it’s kind of lost its place as a key Asian port. It’s no longer a boomtown.

      Besides that, Taiwan became a democracy in the ’90s so Kaohsiung started electing mayors who treated the city like a home, in contrast to the previous mayors appointed by the mainlanders in Taipei who only cared about the city for its port. The river no longer stinks, thanks to that.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Here in the states from 68-70 the Toyota Crown was offered in 4 dr and wagon, then it was replaced with the Corona Mark II 6 cyl in 2 dr, 4 dr and wagon till about 77. All decent mid-sizer cars for their time.

  • avatar

    Here in Europe the Crown used to fatally overheat when driving too fast – speed limits had not yet been introduced. That might be one of the reason there are not many left. And then off course rust prevention was not that good either (don’t think there was any…).

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