Ian Vollmer

Big Screen » Q&A with Beijing Taxi’s Miao Wang

February 8, 2010


YZ and I have been busy working on the title sequences for Beijing Taxi, a documentary by Miao Wang’s 3 Waters Productions which will be world premiering at this year’s SXSW festival in the Documentary Features category. The film is stunning – telling the stories of three Beijing taxi drivers as they face the tremendous changes of the pre-Olympics city. Miao, the film’s director and producer, took the time to answer some of our questions about the film and what it takes to drive a cab in the Chinese capital. Find out more on the film at Beijing Taxi the Film or head over to the doc’s Kickstarter page and make a pledge to help the filmmaker complete post production. Each level of pledging comes with great goodies like limited edition flip books, official Beijing Taxi tees (more on that to come), even a VIP dumpling-making workshop with Miao’s mother! I’ve had those dumplings – they’re insane!! Make a pledge of $25 or more and we’ll even add a Lo’s List goodie bag to the pot! Just email us your pledge confirmation!

QHow did the concept for Beijing Taxi begin?

The concept of taxi drivers as the central characters of the story did emerge out of a conversation I had with one of the subjects (Zhang Hongtu) from my previous documentary Yellow Ox Mountain. Chatting one day, Hongtu and I had a lively conversation about the gregarious characters of Beijing cab drivers. They are such quintessential Beijingers in their personalities. I knew I wanted to make a film in Beijing, and I wanted to make a film about how the common citizens of that city are experiencing the changes. Taxi drivers seemed to be a perfect conduit, since it also lends to very visual images.

Since leaving Beijing in 1990, I only went back to visit every five years. Each time I couldn’t believe how drastically the city of my childhood has changed: by leaps and bounds. Then the big announcement came that Beijing was selected to host the Olympics in 2008 and Beijing entered into a phase of hyper accelerated change. I was anxious to go back to Beijing as soon as I finished Yellow Ox Mountain and to start documenting these changes in the run-up to the Olympics. In some ways you can say a small seed of the project was subconsciously sowed the moment I left Beijing at the age of 13 and moved to the US. Going back to film Beijing’s shift is very personal because it is a way for me to revisit the city of my childhood.

QOkay, so, what are the character traits of a bona fide Beijinger?

Well.. . there’s this word in Chinese that describes it quite perfectly: 豪爽. But there isn’t a simple, good translation. Essentially it says straightforward, bold, and with a big character. Beijingers are known to be laid back, very warm and hospitable: brotherly. Of course, as my film begins to explore, city and personality traits are changing with the times and the shift in society.

QHow do you think Beijing cabbies need to change in order to survive the shift?

Values (in many different aspects) are changing. The Beijing lifestyle used to pride itself in an almost Zen-like mentality. As one driver said, growing up, ambition was not considered a good trait; it was better to seek beyond worldly needs. But now it’s different. With modernization comes competition, and to survive in the new world order you have to have ambition. The old Communist ideals of a social system didn’t lead to a society of everyone enjoying the riches of life but led to everyone having equal amounts of nothing. There is now a large gap between the rich and poor.

The older driver in my film, Bai, has experienced a lot. He lived through a time when no one had anything to eat, but, there was a strange equality of nothingness. He is now left behind, having missed out on the education and skills needed to survive in today’s society. In the end, it’s a bit of a lose-lose situation for him. The woman character, Wei, is the one I consider the most modern of the three. She’s young and ambitious. Her mentality is influenced by modernization and the changes in social values. She wants a slice of the booming pie. She questions her marriage. She questions the old values. Zhou Yi, the third character, represents the old Beijinger mentality most. Somehow he’s managed to hold on to those beliefs and is content with simple pleasures.

QFunny, he was the one I most admired: fishing & laughing through his days…

Yes. Well, who said modernization and the rat race is the key to happiness in life? I definitely want to emphasize that, in spite of hardships and struggles, there’s heart and humanity. And what measures the quality of life is not necessarily the GDP. But at the same time, I don’t want to idolize the “good old days”. Life was not easy back then and that now, just because the economy is developing, life is not all rosy. China is full of contradictions

QHow did you find the drivers profiled. What were their initial reactions to the project?

Basically just through riding in plenty of cabs and hanging out in cabbie lunch spots on my first research and casting trip! Their initial reactions were somewhere along the lines of “what’s this about?” and “is this for TV?”. Ian Vollmer (my cinematographer for the first two trips) and I would just hop into a cab: I would sit in the front, he would sit in the back, and we’d just turn the camera on and start shooting out of the cab. Nobody would believe that I was Ian’s boss. I would chat with the driver and explain that I’m working on a documentary about cab drivers and the changes in Beijing. Most of them reacted favorably; curious. It was hard for most of the drivers we approached to understand that what we were filming wasn’t for CCTV (the government-run television station). The CCTV dominates what people in China watch on TV and the general public thinks that, if you’re on CCTV, you’ve made it.

QHow do you think a Beijing cabbie would hold up in say, NYC?

Ha! It’s hard for me to imagine a Beijinger driving a cab in NY: that would be…. culture shock. New York cabbies in Beijing would definitely be lost. I would advise them to avoid the Xizhimen bridge. They might never be able to get off. It’s the most notoriously badly designed bridge – a maze – and a many out-of-towners can’t figure out how to exit!

QWhat does a Beijinger have to do to become a taxi driver?

Many Beijing cabbies now are from the outerburbs, a new development in the last couple of years. It’s changed a lot, the taxi industry in Beijing. Back in the 80′s, when Bai first started to drive, there were very few cabs on the road. No one could afford it! Cabs were luxuries for officials, rich businessmen, and foreigners. In the 90′s there was an influx of cheap, “breadbox” cabs: little Citroëns that felt like they were about to fall apart. If you tried to put on a seat belt you would get a black line across your shirt. In the last few years, all cabs had to be upgraded for the olympics and it became less and less viable to be a cab driver.

QWho paid for the upgrades?

The drivers. The costs of these upgrades were so high that fares steadily went up. The government subsidized these costs but not enough. On top of that, cab companies take huge fees and do nothing for the drivers. Many drivers used to be farmers so they can take more hardship than inner city drivers like Zhou Yi who quit the profession because of these upgrade costs. But, being farmers means that many of them know nothing about the city roads! There are tons of people getting driven around in circles resulting in mad customers… Drivers are supposed to be tested for geography but these rules are not very strict. Also, now that the subway system got developed for the Olympics, even less people take cabs for longer rides.

QIs there a Beijing cabbie lingo?

Beijing cabbies are very chatty. They love to talk up a storm about politics and are full of jokes too. They’re always listening to the radio and some of them even read the paper at traffic lights!


Make a pledge to help bring Beijing Taxi to SXSW!Later this week: Miao’s Top Ten Beijing Indie tracks!

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