Hong Kong taxis and their Japan connection

During my New Year’s trip to Hong Kong, I managed to ride in a taxi only once. I was at Hong Kong International Airport and I needed to get to Mui Wo on the other side of the island of Lantau, where I was spending the night. This required a fairly expensive ride up and down a giant mountain in the middle of the island, but fortunately I got to split the fare with a friendly Cathay Pacific pilot who didn’t want to wait for the next elusive blue taxi.

You see, in Hong Kong, there are three kinds of taxis. In central Hong Kong and Kowloon, the most developed parts, you mostly see “red taxis” which are licensed to serve the urban center. In the New Territories to the north, you see “green taxis” which are limited to the New Territories. Lantau likewise has its own fleet of “blue taxis.” If you are traveling solely on Lantau, your only option is the blue taxi: a red or green taxi is not allowed to carry you. Which is a shame because there are a LOT of red taxis at the airport.


I ended up calling a dispatcher (after waiting for a few minutes to see if a blue taxi would show up at random). Ten minutes later, a blue taxi showed up, and the pilot and I began a long trek across Lantau.

Most of the island is undeveloped mountains and hills, and the road crossing through the middle is in a never-ending process of being widened to two lanes. I learned from my traveling companion that driving is tightly restricted on Lantau, and even if you have a car there (which requires a special permit) you can’t drive it around during the day–only at night. The poor throughput on the mountain road was enough to convince me that said policy was justified.

Our journey gave me plenty of time to notice something odd about the cab. It used to be Japanese, and in fact it still had a few Japanese stickers in the window, including a peeling and somewhat outdated fare quote in yen.


It turns out that, at least according to Wikipedia, “almost all taxis in Hong Kong are Toyota Comfort“–the same model as the boxy taxis and police cars found all over Japan. After spotting this example, I spent quite some time getting intensely interested in Hong Kong taxis, and I noticed that this was not a one-off: many other Hong Kong taxis carry Japanese markings here and there. In some taxi windows, I could see spots where the stickers had been removed.

What led to this practice? I can’t say for sure, although I can give some plausible reasons.

  • One is that cars lose value pretty quickly in Japan because of stringent roadworthiness testing (“shaken“) requirements which make older cars prohibitively expensive to keep. As a result, exporting is a big business: a person who doesn’t want to pay for the inspection is often happy to sell their car to an exporter for a bargain price. Then the exporter can ship it to Australia, Russia, Hong Kong or elsewhere, sell it to a local and collect a tidy profit.
  • Hong Kong is also the closest left-hand drive territory to Japan, which makes it a natural market for used Japanese cars: they fit right in, much moreso than they would in Korea, Taiwan or mainland China (where people drive on the right).
  • Hong Kong shares the crowdedness and hilly terrain which Japanese taxis are (I assume) well designed to handle.

I’m sure there’s some funky tax or regulatory reason for this as well, which some friendly commenter will point out.

Anyway, Mui Wo, my final destination, was an odd corner of civilization, and it served to show me that even Hong Kong, the most modern and developed part of China, still has its little pockets of Third Worldliness.


6 thoughts on “Hong Kong taxis and their Japan connection”

  1. Out of interest, how did you get back from Mui Wo? Are there buses?

    Incidentally, I’ve never been convinced that it’s the shaken that makes older cars rare. Not for something like a Toyota Comfort, which isn’t that old. The set government fees are the same despite the age, and while you may need to replace for example the timing belt at around 100,000kms, there’s some leeway on that as well. I was driving a 1992 Toyota until last year, and it was insane petrol prices, not the cost of the shaken, that drove me to finally get a kei car. That and the cost of two low-profile 245 tyres for the rear every two years (this was not the shaken system being overly anal: it was a turbo-charged MR2, so ate rear tyres for breakfast. Sometimes I would be down to racing slicks with absolutely NO tread left at all). So anything up to 15 and probably even 20 years old should not be overly expensive to keep. However, while it may or may not be the shaken, a car that tips 100,000kms on the clock (mine got up to 98,000 – I did a lot of driving, from Kagoshima to Akita) is seriously an incredible bargain – to buy, at any rate. Almost no one will touch a car that well used. And since taxis get a lot of use, I think it may be them being cheaper to import second-hand due to having high mileage rather than shaken costs per se (since a Toyota engine should be good for at least 200,000km or more). Even replacing a timing belt is cheaper than buying a new car, by the way. When people do get a new car, doing at shaken time makes sense of course – might as well put that money towards a new car rather than spend on the old. But unless the car needs serious work, I doubt it would be prohibitively expensive due to just age, within reason.

  2. I have read that the average New York City taxi gets driven so much that it only lasts for 3-5 years before being so worn out that it’s cheaper to replace than keep repairing. I find it hard to believe that a taxi, which gets more abuse than almost any other kind of vehicle, will still be in good enough condition to sell used (at least to another developed territory) while being too old for the original owner to continue driving.

    On a related note, the buses in The Philippine were usually (or always) old ones from Japan. The bus I hopped on just outside of Manila Airport, to get into the city, was actually an old Kyoto City bus, and still had almost all of the original signage inside! There was a little metal placard above the windshield, inside, which said something like “reconditioned by Hankyu bus company 1990”.

  3. A typical city taxi puts on something like 80,000 miles a year. Those Crown Vic’s they use in New York hold up pretty well- that’s why it’s the car of choice for police fleets. For some odd reason though, they are no longer sold to the general public, despite probably being the most reliable thing Ford sells.

  4. Jade: I got back from Mui Wo by ferry (there’s regular service to Central, and it’s quite a breathtaking ride when you come around the west end of Hong Kong Island).

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