Monday I went to the People's Park and, indeed, I've never seen any place more dedicated to ordinary people.
There were people skateboarding, break-dancing, playing ping-pong or putting on shows with giant yo-yos or elaborate kites. There were also 14 or 15 different musical groups singing, dancing or playing various instruments.
All of them were amateurs and most of them were retired men and women in their 50's and 60's. (Yes, I did use the words "retired" and "in their 50's or 60's") The quality varied but the performers all obviously practiced a lot and were very enthusiastic. Patriotic songs and dances from Mao's Long March were favorites - a possible response to the USA's brilliant war game (is Rumsfeld back in power?) maneuvers in the China Sea.
When I left the park, however, I couldn't get a cab. I spend over an hour and a half trying to flag one down but a hundred went by full. A guy on a motorcycle drove up and offered me a ride for three times the usual price. I turned him down and tried to get a cab for another half an hour before finally taking a ride in a regular sedan for twice the usual price. The dude didn't know exactly know how to get to my place so I got my money's worth with his round about route.
There was a line of about one hundred people waiting for cabs near my hotel. One of the few Americans I've seen, a middle-aged military type, was angrily trying to educate the local people in English as to how they should properly form a line. They ignored him of course. The Chinese know perfectly well how to form lines. They simply walk to the front. The lao wai (foreigner) finally stepped up and grabbed a taxi as a couple climbed out. A cop came over and send him back to the end of the line.
In short, it's a cab driver's paradise. About the only chance you have to get a taxi is when one drops. I don't know exactly what's going on but we had a real difficult time getting a hotel room in a city of 12 million people. Of course we are restricted to places that will accept lao wai - most hotels cater only to Chinese - and aren't Hiltons. Still, it's hard to know where all the gringos are. The army jerk is about the only other one I've seen. People turn around and stare at me as if they've never seen a Caucasian before.
My travelling companion has a different theory.
"They're looking at you because you're so ugly," she tells me.
"Then why are the young women flirting with me?"
"They want to marry you so that you'll take them to meiguo (beautiful country, America). As soon as they get their green card, they will give you too much sex. You will have a heart attack and you will die."
"Don't you think you're being too romantic?"
"I only tell the truth."
"Then again, that might not be too bad - the Irish call it the heavenly send off."
"You Irish! - You're nothing but a bunch of sex maniacs and drunks."
A possible over-simplification but there's little doubt that I'd be having more fun if my friend wasn't along. On the other hand, I'd be missing these unique insights into her native culture not to mention the culinary feasts she leads me to daily.
But, I digress.
It's hard to know how driving a cab here compares to driving in San Francisco.
Most of the drivers share long term leases with one other driver. They take turns driving 18 hour shifts every other day. That is, a driver will work 54 hours one week and 72 hours the next. They take home about 3,500 - 4,000 Yuan or 600 Dollars a month.
Most of the rides in Chengdu run about 10 Yuan. In Beijing, which is a huge city like L.A. or Houston, the average fare is more like 15 or 20 Y. The yuan is about 1/6.5th the value of the dollar. I think that the cost of living is probably consistent with the relative value of the Yuan to the dollar. Food is probably cheaper (except for fruit). At the tiny restaurants that are all over the place, you can get a breakfast of porridge, one egg and 6 dumpling for about 75 cents. You can also get a delicious dinner for two for about 3 dollars.
Rent, on the other hand is expensive. In Beijing, housing costs relatively as much as it does in San Francisco. A driver probably pays about 200 or 300 dollars a month in rent. Of course I think there are fewer cowboy drivers in China than in SF. Most drivers here are family men and women, so there would be more than one person sharing the expenses.
This is a communist country that is supposed to give health benefits to everyone but that was in the old days. I don't think that it's too different from the US in this respect. Government workers have great benefits (especially teachers) but most other people are SOL.
Are Chinese cab drivers part of the new middle-class? I guess they are if we are. I don't think their life-style is too much different than that of the average driver in San Francisco - except most of them eat better tasting food.