Zhang Haiyun gets up early. She carefully combs her hair and piles it on top of her head, splashes on some red lipstick, shapes her eyebrows and then puts on the uniform she has ironed the night before.
With food and water in her lunch bag, Zhang eases into her cab and shoots off into the city’s bustling center. “Here we go!” she says with a big smile. “A new day has just started.”
Zhang, 38, works for Dazhong Taxi & Leasing Car Co and is among the first group of female drivers who are not native of Shanghai.
Two years ago, Shanghai’s transport department began allowing local taxi companies to employ drivers from out of the city, a move aimed at addressing a shortage of drivers as demand for cab services grew.
“There were no more than 10 women drivers when I came to work, and I was lucky to be one of them,” says Zhang, who hails from neighboring Jiangsu Province.
Sixteen years ago, Zhang left her hometown of Xuzhou, a heavy-industrial city in the north of the Yangtze River Delta Region, and came to Shanghai with the dream of “earning big money.”
It was a hard choice to leave familiar surroundings, but life in Xuzhou offered little in the way of prospects. Zhang had a hard childhood. Her mother died when she was little and she received only a middle school education.
Most people in her hometown worked in grimy factories for low wages, with little opportunity to find better, more satisfying jobs.
“My father didn’t say much,” Zhang says, recalling the day she left him and two older brothers to migrate to Shanghai. “He just hoped I would be safe and happy in a big, strange city. I am still hoping I can move my father here someday.”
Zhang was among the first wave of migrant workers who sought the bright lights and better-paying jobs of the city. Shanghai is now home to about five million migrant workers, many doing menial jobs as construction workers, restaurant servers, street cleaners, domestic helpers (ayis) and supermarket cashiers.
Zhang met and married her husband in Shanghai, but their marriage ended in divorce a few years afterward.
As her life changed, so did her dreams.
“My biggest dream now is to drive a taxi until the day I’m too old to drive because I really love my job,” she says. “And my two children now have equal rights to receive a good education in Shanghai, just like local kids.”
Zhang rents a small but cozy apartment, and her son and daughter are doing well in school, she says.
However, the first years in the city were bleak. Before becoming a Dazhong driver, Zhang drove a “black cab,” or unlicensed taxi, around the Pengpu area in north Shanghai. That secondhand car, bought on the black market, cost her 40,000 yuan (US$6,500).
“I really don’t have any skills other than driving,” she says. “It’s the only thing I could do to support my family.”
Those “black cab” years were the hardest and saddest days in her life, Zhang says. She went through a divorce that left her with sole responsibility for two children. “My life was a total mess,” she says.
Every morning when she climbed into her “black cab,” Zhang says she prayed to Buddha that she wouldn’t be flagged down by police. Though she was earning up to 300 yuan a day, she says it always felt like she was “walking a tightrope.”
Zhang was finally arrested and fined 10,000 yuan.
“Thank Buddha that the police gave the car back to me,” she says. “It was my only hope during those dark days.”
During the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, she also drove an unlicensed cab carrying tourists around town.
“The money was good, but I was upset and scared all day,” she says. “What would my children do if I got arrested again?”
In March 2011, she learned that taxi companies were starting to recruit non-local drivers. “Why not give it a try?” she asked herself. “I took my ID card and driving license to apply. On the third day, someone from Dazhong called and told me I had been accepted. You can’t imagine how happy I was to hear the news.”
Her training program at the company lasted for five months.
She then received her operating license and became a legal full-time driver for one of Shanghai’s largest cab and leasing companies.
“I was nervous on the first day,” she recalls. “My hands were trembling on the steering wheel.”
But it was a fortuitous start. She earned more than 1,000 yuan that first day and says she felt like she had made a fortune.
Zhang says politeness is very important for a taxi driver and she always greets passengers with a cheery “hello.” At first, she always apologized if she didn’t know the exact location a fare was requesting. She says she found passengers very understanding.
Happier and more self-assured
“They told me not to worry and they often showed me the way,” Zhang says. “Some even advised me which routes would be the least congested.”
She works from 7am to 2am every other day, earning about 6,000 yuan a month.
“It’s less than I earned in my ‘black cab’ days,” she admits. “But I only work 15 days a month now. What’s more important, I’m happier and more self-assured.”
There are pitfalls to her profession. As a woman, she often has to drive a long way to find a public toilet, and sometimes there’s no time for lunch.
One cold winter day, one of the front tires blew out. “The car tilted suddenly. I was panicked,” she recalls.
Not knowing what to do, Zhang hailed down a passing Dazhong taxi for help. The driver helped her change the tire, refused any payment and later became a good friend.
“On rainy days, he often calls to remind me to drive slowly,” she says.
Zhang likes to talk with her passengers unless she senses they prefer quiet. “We chat about everything — traffic jams, politics, weather, education, fitness, beauty products and many other things,” she says.
Tall and plump, Zhang loves beautiful clothes and bling like any woman. She says she always likes to look her best on the job. She wears a hat to block the sunlight.
“I use make-up every day,” she says. “It’s my way of showing respect for passengers and also something that makes me happy. They often say I don’t look like a taxi driver.”
Zhang says most of her fellow villagers in Xuzhou who came to Shanghai seeking a better life have had to put up with meager lifestyles as street vendors or vegetable sellers. “Compared with them, I’ve been much luckier,” she says.
She even manages to smile her way through Shanghai’s notorious traffic congestion.
“It drives most people crazy when they are stuck in traffic jams in the rush hours,” she says with a sigh.
Like most of migrant workers chasing their dreams in Shanghai, Zhang says she hopes she can afford to buy a small apartment of her own some day.
“But now I am happy,” she confides. “I’ve got a job I love, friends who care about me and two lovely children. I have no reason to be discontent. People should learn to be grateful for what they have and not ask for too much.”