By Chris Juergens
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Frank Langfitt’s 2019 book The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China is the first-hand story of a long-time foreign correspondent and current NPR reporter who lived and worked in China in the 1990s and more recently in the 2010s.
Langfitt bought a sedan in Shanghai and offered free-rides to Shanghai residents in exchange for conversations. Through these free-rides, Langfitt, a former cabbie himself in Philadelphia, developed many lasting contacts with locals. Thanks to these lasting contacts, Langfitt followed people’s life trajectories over the years and paints a variegated, vivid, and diverse picture of how Chinese people are changing.
In an interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly, Langfitt described his approach to reporting as “the art of hanging out.” His goal was always to “be in the background, not the forefront” of a conversation with his passengers. With his interviewees, he would ask people questions and let them talk. This allowed them to genuinely open up about what was on their minds.
Armed with a vehicle, when interviewees asked if he wanted to accompany them somewhere, he invariably said yes. He drove interviewees not only within Shanghai, but also to their home villages. Given his open mindedness for a variety of experiences, Langfitt is able to witness countryside family weddings, underground church services in Shanghai, and pig slaughtering on a farm. Through these experiences, Langfitt developed trust with his subjects. With Langfitt, interviewees cry while confessing their guilt and regrets, discuss their dreams and fears, and even touch on politics.
In authoritarian China, discussing politics is sensitive and Langfitt himself gives many examples of how people fear government control and retribution. However, given Langfitt’s unique ability to develop lasting relationships with so many average Chinese citizens, his book gives important insight into Chinese thinking regarding the United States, Chinese ambitions in Asia, the Communist Party’s decision to change the constitution to allow Xi Jinping to serve as president potentially until death, and attitudes towards authoritarianism versus democracy. Langfitt stated, “It would have been much harder to discuss these sensitive topics if I had just asked directly what people thought.” Over time, though, Langfitt said that people would naturally broach these topics anyways as they began to trust him.
Langfitt honed his reporting style through many years as a reporter in different parts of the globe. He spent years covering Appalachia and told the Northwest Asian Weekly that he would spend hours on people’s porches and just listen and take notes.
“Appalachia has a great story-telling tradition,” Langfitt pointed out, and as a reporter, he learned to take full-advantage to discover the depth of the region. Currently an NPR reporter in London, Langfitt used his location to meet up with a long-term Chinese interview subject living in Europe whom he visited multiple times to listen to her talk about her changing views on Europe, the United States, and China.
Langfitt’s reporting is also made possible by his Mandarin skills. Langfitt told the Northwest Asian Weekly that when he was driving his taxi, he would converse directly with interviewees. Langfitt learned his Mandarin when he first arrived in Beijing as a reporter in the 1990s and had no prior experience with the language. He studied once he arrived in Beijing, and often ate dinner with a Chinese family which greatly helped his conversation.
Langfitt took pains to clarify that his Mandarin is not as strong as he would like and that his excellent news assistant often helped him translate parts of some conversations that were beyond his ability. “My tones are dreadful, ” Langfitt confessed. Despite his modesty, it is clear this book would not have been possible without a relatively high level of Mandarin ability.
Langfitt’s book is a refreshingly human look at the Chinese people at a time when the media environment is dominated by discussions of the U.S.-China trade war. Langfitt told the Northwest Asian Weekly that the timing of the book was not planned, but that its release time is auspicious.
“I am concerned about demonization on both sides,” said Langfitt. “Hopefully this book with allow people to differentiate to some degree between the policies of the Chinese government and the hopes, dreams, and values of ordinary Chinese.”
While Langfitt’s book is a very personal look at the lives and ambitions of Chinese people, Langfitt skillfully compiles his interviews thematically so that the individual stories build up to create a larger narrative about Chinese society. He continues to come back to subjects at multiple points throughout the book when they fit into his thematic analysis of Chinese society. Moreover, Langfitt skillfully uses statistics and quotes from people who cover and study China to show how his collected anecdotes are not mere aberrations but rather indicative of large-scale trends within China.
Langfitt’s book is very easy to read, even for those with little background knowledge of China. That said, it is important to read the book cover to cover. Many unanswered questions from earlier chapters are cleared up later in the book. The span of the entire book allows the reader to see how characters evolve. For instance, Langfitt details how a used-car salesman attempts to scam him. Despite this breach of trust, Langfitt stays in touch with the salesman and shows how his life has moved in a more positive direction and even develops a level of trust with Langfitt, the very person the salesman attempted to rip-off (you need to read the book for more details on this story!).
For those with deeper knowledge on China, the book is a great contribution to documenting recent trends in China and complements the earlier works of Peter Hessler and others who have documented personal stories to show China has changed. In sum, an entertaining, unique, and crucial read at a crucial time.