The Shanghai Free Taxi


Frank Langfitt, PublicAffairs, 300 pages, $28. In China, where a century’s worth of development has been squeezed into decades, cabbies have had a front-row seat to the country’s dizzying changes, and have some of the best anecdotes and the most interesting views of the country’s transformation. In “The Shanghai Free Taxi,” NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt puts a new twist on the cabbie narrative: He becomes the driver. Langfitt rents, and later buys, a car to drive people around Shanghai and farther afield, in exchange only for their stories. He meets and follows a range of people, weaving their perspectives into his own commentary on China’s high-speed trajectory. The result is an engaging and dynamic narrative that offers readers an unusual perspective on modern China. Langfitt shows us a Shanghai rich in contrasts — from glitzy law offices and Maserati dealerships to country migrants living in shoe-box-size apartments. Yet Langfitt’s passengers have one thing in common: a desire to improve their lot in life. At times, the free taxi rides — some of which formed a series of Langfitt’s radio stories for NPR from 2014 to 2016 — feel like a thin conceptual thread to hold the book together. There are too many familiar stories of iconoclastic rebels and a slight overproportion of well-to-do, English-speaking characters. Yet the latter part of the book includes more recent news items and follow-up interviews that opens a window on what the Chinese think about President Donald Trump, Brexit and other current affairs.