What An NPR Correspondent Learned By Working As A Taxi Driver In Shanghai NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Frank Langfitt about his new book, Shanghai Free Taxi. It's born out of a project he started to meet ordinary Chinese citizens as a correspondent for NPR.

What An NPR Correspondent Learned By Working As A Taxi Driver In Shanghai

What An NPR Correspondent Learned By Working As A Taxi Driver In Shanghai

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Frank Langfitt about his new book, Shanghai Free Taxi. It's born out of a project he started to meet ordinary Chinese citizens as a correspondent for NPR.


On a rainy summer night five years ago, in the city of Shanghai, China, Frank Langfitt took up driving a taxi.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PASSENGERS: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PASSENGERS: (Foreign language spoken).

KELLY: Now, if you're scratching your head and thinking, hang on, isn't Frank Langfitt an NPR reporter? Yep, he was our Shanghai correspondent at the time. And he was finding a lot of Chinese people were shy about giving interviews. So Frank hatched this crazy idea - free cab rides in exchange for conversation. He heard all kinds of people's stories this way. You may have heard some of them on our air. Now Frank has written his adventures into a book, "The Shanghai Free Taxi." And Frank is here now. Hi there.

LANGFITT: Great to be here. Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. Nice to see you in person. And set the stage for me by describing what this taxi looked like. Where'd you get it?

LANGFITT: Sure. What I did is - I had been a taxi cab driver, actually, after college. So I'd grown up in Philadelphia.

KELLY: Previous, previous career.


KELLY: Yeah, OK.

LANGFITT: And I found that it was a fascinating way to get to know Philadelphia, where I'd grown up. People get in the back seat and they felt very comfortable speaking to a stranger, actually, who they thought they might never see again. So when I got back to Shanghai - it was about 2011 - and I realized that the country, China, was in an inflection point. So I decided to basically do what I'd done 30 years earlier in Philadelphia. And we put together magnetic signs that we put on a car that I rented, and they said it was a free loving heart taxi.

KELLY: A free loving heart taxi.

LANGFITT: Yes. (Speaking foreign language) - in Chinese (laughter).

KELLY: Sounds better in Chinese, if I may (laughter).

LANGFITT: And - it's much better in Chinese. It doesn't translate well into English. And basically, we also had another sign on the car that said, basically, looking to chat about Shanghai life. And lots of people in the streets read it, understood what I was interested in and hopped in.

KELLY: Really?


KELLY: I mean, this astonishes me that people got in.

LANGFITT: They did, they did.

KELLY: This random dude driving around...

LANGFITT: It is, but...

KELLY: ...In a rented Camry?

LANGFITT: And it's really interesting because the fact that I was a middle-aged white guy with gray hair driving around like this was an enormous source of curiosity to people. And so people would get in, and most of them thought, oh, this is a really good idea. And then they would hang out in the car. And what I did over time is, if they were particularly interesting characters, I followed them, in some cases, for the book, for the last four or five years.

KELLY: All right. So tell us about some of these characters and stories that you picked up - literally, picked up along the way. There's one, a lawyer, who you met during a village wedding.


KELLY: Which you served as a - you went out of Shanghai, well out of Shanghai, as a chauffeur here.


KELLY: He, this lawyer - what intrigued me was you talked to him about the U.S. and what he knew about it. And he was a big fan of some aspects of America.

LANGFITT: Some aspects and not others. This attorney who I met had actually studied law in the United States and was a huge fan of the system of checks and balances.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: American people should value the Constitution. Even if you have one or two bad presidents, that's just OK; that's not a big deal. I have faith in you.

KELLY: I have faith in you - in us Americans, he's saying. I mean, what's he getting at?

LANGFITT: What he's saying is he has faith in the system, and that given all the political turmoil after the 2016 election, what he was saying is you need to have faith in the system in the United States. And what was not said there and was said in other interviews, other conversations, is the system in China doesn't have a system of checks and balances on power, which is how you had Mao in office forever and nearly destroying the country twice. So what he was talking about was how lucky we are in the United States and how we should appreciate what the Founding Fathers had done.

KELLY: Of the many, many characters we meet on these pages, my absolute, hands-down favorite was a used-car salesman. I'm going to let him introduce himself.


BEER: I'm Beer - English name is Beer.


BEER: Yeah.

KELLY: And I gather you, then, asked him why his name was Beer.


BEER: (Through interpreter) I like this drink. My old English name was B-I-L-L. I like to drink beer in big gulps. When I drink with friends, we drink crazily - seven to eight bottles each.

KELLY: (Laughter) This is - Frank, this is all before he's even shown you a car?

LANGFITT: This is correct. This is how he introduces himself as a salesman. And his pitch to me is, I'm a binge drinker, and we should go out and get hammered.

KELLY: (Laughter) Long story short - you do not buy a car from him.

LANGFITT: I don't - I - he - I still have - I mean, I almost have PTSD from dealing with the hard sell.


LANGFITT: It was really - I literally actually had to run out of the...

KELLY: But you kept tracking him down and interviewing him.

LANGFITT: I stayed in touch with him.

KELLY: What did you learn from him?

LANGFITT: Well, it was interesting because the great thing about covering China is so much happens in such a short period of time that your characters, if you follow them for five years, it's more like 15. And what was really interesting is how Beer actually matured in ways that I never imagined. So by the last time I was talking to Beer, he had a wife and a child, he had a very steady job in the South, and he actually had a blueprint for how he was going to open his own leasing business.

And so there was something really nice. Even though Beer was, like, this kind of - I mean, he was a very slippery character. In the end, I really came out liking Beer in the end, even though we'd had our ups and downs with him always trying to trick me into buying some car I didn't want (laughter).

KELLY: I love it. You couldn't have known this while you were reporting and writing all this, but your book lands in the middle of global focus on the relationship between U.S. and China, this trade war and the U.S. targeting Huawei - the Chinese telecoms giant. Do you know if that has changed the way any of your characters think about their country or the U.S.?

LANGFITT: Yes, because I've actually been on the phone with some of them. And this character that I talked to, she feels people understand the trade war, but they feel that Huawei is really being targeted, and people do feel that that is unfair.

I also had a conversation with another character who surprised me, and he said - and there are a small minority in China who feel this way - that, actually, they like the trade war. They feel that the pressure that President Trump is putting on the regime is good because they feel the regime is very repressive. So it also speaks, I think, to the wide variety of views now that, if you talk to people in China, it's - there's tremendous diversity of opinion.

KELLY: Will your book be published in mainland China?

LANGFITT: I don't see that it will. It's the most repressive time in China that I've ever covered the country. I just...

KELLY: Really? I mean, because we should state you were there in Shanghai.

LANGFITT: I still - I came...

KELLY: You had an earlier stint in Beijing.

LANGFITT: Yeah, I started...

KELLY: You spent a lot of time there.

LANGFITT: I started in '97 in Beijing. This is definitely, by far, the most repressive environment. And so the likelihood of printing a book like this - which is not a polemic. It's not a political book; it's a narrative book about people.

KELLY: But it's Chinese people being honest about what they think.

LANGFITT: Being honest about things, and there's just no - there's not much space for that right now.

KELLY: Well, I want to let you send us out with a story that proves some things transcend the politics and the language barriers and cultural divides and all the rest, by which I refer to the absolute joy of belting out a good John Denver song on a long road trip, an experience which you enjoyed on a back road in China.

LANGFITT: We were heading home for Chinese New Year to Hubei province with a couple of my characters.

KELLY: That's like a - what? - like, a 10-hour drive?

LANGFITT: It's a 500-mile drive. And one of the characters, Rocky, had this John Denver song, and he started to play it on his cellphone. And then everybody broke into song, and my dad is from West Virginia, and I got kind of choked up.

KELLY: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: And this is what it sounded like.


JOHN DENVER: (Singing) Country road, take me home to the place I belong - West Virginia...

KELLY: Singalong there from a Chinese road, one of many traveled by NPR's Frank Langfitt. He is now our man in London; he was our man in Shanghai, and he writes about some of the many characters he met and interviewed there in his new book, "The Shanghai Free Taxi." Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it. Thanks for having me.


DENVER: (Singing) ...Stranger to blue water. Darken the...

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