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Cheated “memorably” in China by an unusual “pimp”

It is easy to write good stories, but extremely difficult to put words to describe a bad experience, especially when one is being cheated. Since the intent of this blog is for me to share factual incidents that happened to me, I thought it would be important to tell a story on one of the most “memorable cheating” incident I had in China. Life lesson as such made me appreciate how fortunate I was brought up, recognizing honesty as a virtue; even though I must say conversely it had on hindsight ill-prepared me to handle such unfortunate incident.

Back track to the year 1998, I was living in Suzhou but I was still considered very new to how “private” practices were being done in China. The incident happened on a day when I went to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport to pick up my wife, who just arrived from Singapore.

Usually, there were private hire cars to send and receive passengers to the airport, and I was told by my friends and colleagues in Suzhou that it would be best to hire a car fetch ourselves to and from our destination. However, being young and somehow naive, coupled with the concern having a meagre salary at that time, I decided to save some monies, and planned as such by taking a one way public transport to the old Hongqiao airport from Suzhou, and then get a “taxi” to return back to Suzhou. That would probably have saved me a few hundred renminbi, a good savings for a young family man.

Given that Suzhou and Shanghai were 2 different cities, private hires were based on the different car plates from different cities. Once arriving at the airport, many private hires drivers would be standing at the reception area and approaching newly arrived passengers. Many of my friends then in Suzhou had earlier cautioned me that it would be important to negotiate the fare and make sure the car plate would be Suzhou for us to be transported back “safely”.

Luck was definitely not on my side that day after receiving my wife at the airport. Lugging several luggage, we were easily noticed as foreign people who were considered as “easy” targets for the private hires. Immediately after I welcomed my wife, several private hires swarmed toward us. Since it was expensive for us to hire a taxi, and remembering what my friends in Suzhou told me, I tried to figure out who would offer us a Suzhou city registered car to fetch us back to Suzhou Industrial Park. I could not remember exactly how much it was, but I did know the “market price” then and negotiated with one that offered the right fare. Gleefully, we followed the private hire guy (or I should now use the word “car-pimp”) to a so-called Suzhou number plate car.

The drama came after the “car-pimp” led us to a car, got hold of our luggage and then told us that he had a friend who would be our driver. I got a little suspicious when I saw the number plate, which was apparently from Shanghai. Upon questioning the “car-pimp”, he told me that this Shanghai number plate car was about to go to Suzhou to pick up customer and told us not to worry. Suspicious but because it was quite late and my wife seemed tired after a long flight, I decided to not to argue and took his words for granted, and boarded the car with an awaiting driver.

After sitting comfortably inside the car for 10 minutes, and by this time, we were driven away from the airport vicinity, the driver suddenly stopped the car somewhere on a highway. We were then told to get off the car and “wait” for another car. He told us that he had to return to Shanghai and another car would come and fetch us to Suzhou. Totally taken off by this, we were angry and decided to stay inside the car without listening to his instruction. Then suddenly, he got off the car, and 2 other men appeared from nowhere and came over and told us that they had off-loaded our luggage from the boot, and demanded that we got off the car. Frightened as my wife was me, we decided to abide by their instructions. We were them told to make the hire payment, if not, we would be left stranded in the middle of the highway. The men told us they would “arrange” a car to pick us after we paid them. We were stunned and terrified, because it would have been impossible to flag for any “taxis” that could bring us to Suzhou, about 2 hours away. Reluctantly, we paid the men and almost immediately, a Suzhou number plate car pulled over, and we were being “shafted” into this Suzhou-bound car. Feeling “cheated”, we had no choice but blame on our bad luck.

However, the drama did not end after we got into the car. Halfway to Suzhou, this “new” driver demanded we paid him extra to cover his trip, because he said he had paid “fees” to the Shanghai men to get customers. He threatened to leave us stranded again if we were not to pay him, and this time, we were totally lost for words. With no other options (bearing in mind in those days, we did not even have a mobile phone to call for help), we decided to pay him to save ourselves. Eventually, I ended paying more than double of what was the usual trip fare…Blame it on bad luck but I found out that it was myself that was that made the wrong decision of “penny wise but pound foolish” judgement to save money on a round trip.

Coming back to my senses, I realized for future trips to airport, the best would be to hire a car for a round trip from Suzhou instead, and the hire must be introduced by trusted friends. This “mafia-type of car-swapping” or “偷龙转凤“ was a lesson that I could never forgot till today. From that day onwards, I no longer took private hires whenever I arrive in a new city. My lesson told me that I will only take “official transports” like designated taxis or official hire car hiring counters inside the airport.

In today’s context, especially with mobile app like Grab, Uber or Didi, even though there are still “car-pimps” who operated more discretely inside airports in China, such cheat incidents had been greatly reduced in China. Over and above, the on-demand Didi services in China is so good today that we can now pre-book an “ambassador” to guide us to the hire car. That is how much China has improved, with excellent service and price transparency tapping on mobile services !

Reflecting from this syndicated “car-pimping” incident, I had viewed it as a “memorable” life lesson which I had paid for, resonating the below message that I like to share :

“Every pain gives a lesson, and every lesson changes a person!”

Perhaps it was a pain that was worthwhile when I come to think about it today.



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