Driving a 1997 Toyota Crown Comfort Hong Kong Taxi Took Me Somewhere That No Longer Exists
The iconic red Toyota Crown Comfort is more than just a cab for a lot of immigrants and ex-pats from Hong Kong.
“Are you guys emigrating?” the driver asked as he loaded up our last bit of luggage into the trunk. The sun hadn’t even come out yet, and we were standing in the early morning frost outside our old apartment in Wong Tai Sin. My parents, my baby brother, and I were not, in fact, emigrating—that had already happened about eight years ago—but merely heading to the airport after our latest temporary visit to Hong Kong. Suddenly, I felt a bit sad. Not because we were leaving my grandparents or a city full of exquisite food I wasn’t quite old enough to fully appreciate yet, but because I knew it would be the last time I’d get to ride in a fire-engine-red Toyota Crown Comfort for a while.
There is a smell. I’m fairly sure it’s just a mixture of old Toyota plastics, old Toyota air conditioning, and endless hours exposed to subtropical heat and humidity, but the inside of every Hong Kong taxi has an extremely distinct smell. Unlike the cigarette-and-B.O.-laced aromas that characterize a lot of other cities’ cabs, though, it’s actually quite pleasant. And because HK is a place extremely short on land—meaning car ownership is reserved for the relatively wealthy—it’s a smell that most Hong Kongers know well.
The HK taxi is basically the automotive equivalent of Vitasoy in a glass bottle, having macaroni and ham for breakfast at a cha chaan teng, and milk tea pulled out of something that looks like a stocking. To millions of Hong Kongers around the world, it’s about as iconic as the yellow Crown Vic is to New Yorkers. And despite not living in Hong Kong currently, I recently got to revisit one, albeit from the driver's seat.
1997 Toyota Crown Comfort LPG Review Specs
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline-six | 4-speed automatic | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 108 @ 5,600 rpm
- Torque: 112 lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm
- Seating capacity: 5
A little background on how this particular Hong Kong taxi found itself on the streets of Toronto, Canada, though. It is, strictly speaking, a replica but quite a good one. Apparently starting out life as a taxi in Japan, it’s a 1997 Toyota Crown Comfort LPG that was shipped over to Toronto to be used as a movie-and-TV prop. Painted red and silver to emulate a taxi from HK, it can be seen briefly in 2013’s Pacific Rim.
In November 2021, current owner Alan Wu bought it and has spent much of the past year restoring and doing it up, getting it to look as much like the real thing as he can. That means yellow interior stickers in both English and traditional Chinese outlining how much your ride is going to cost and what you are and aren’t allowed to do, a wood-bead cover on the driver’s seat, and that red “TAXI” light that flips up on the dash to let people know whether you’re taking passengers or not. The rooflight actually works. There’s a little device that prints receipts, a red coin box with the word “ECO” printed on it for some reason, and an entire squad of cell phones of varying vintage stuck above the gauge cluster. And the aftermarket audio system was tuned to Chinese talk radio. It really is the full HK taxi experience.
A realtor by day, Wu has a penchant for unusual cars. In addition to the taxi, he has a BMW i8 and ran a right-hand drive Nissan Elgrand van here in Toronto before he had the red Toyota. Despite this, he says the taxi is the car that gets him the most attention. Popping up in local news outlets both Chinese and mainstream, Wu’s taxi has even become a bit of a local celebrity. Appearing at events, night markets, and long-term care facilities, it’s brought uplifting motherland nostalgia to a populace that could definitely use a lot of that after the events of the past few years (and I’m only partially talking about COVID).
Driving it from Markham—a Toronto suburb home to Pacific Mall, some of the best Asian food outside of Asia, and, I reckon, among the highest concentration of HKers outside of HK—all the way to downtown T.O.’s actual Chinatown and back, I lost count of the number of folks who gleefully whipped out phones to snap pictures, or tried to flag us down to find out exactly what on earth was going on here (or, in the case of one optimistic older gentleman, how he could get a ride).
Second-generation millennials who mostly grew up in Toronto but recognized the car from years of watching TVB dramas over their parents’ shoulders every night. Senior citizens who perhaps have trouble differentiating between siu mai and har gao these days but instantly locked eyes with a boxy, red sedan they haven’t seen in decades. Wu recalls a former HK cabbie who once got very emotional after driving all the way down from Montreal to see it—a vehicle he hadn’t seen in 25 years. Everybody who knew what it was was absolutely ecstatic to be in its presence.
Imagine if you moved away to a faraway land and, out of the blue, one of your favorite local restaurants from home that you haven’t been to for years sets up a pop-up joint across the street from where you’re living now. It’s that kind of joy and I can tell you firsthand that we would’ve gotten less attention if we were driving around in a Lamborghini.
Driving the HK Taxi
But enough rose-tinted lyrical waxing about cultural significance. It’s time to evaluate the HK taxi with my Car Reviewer’s hat on.
As you might imagine, the Toyota Crown Comfort was very much created and calibrated for comfort—I mean, it’s in the name and everything. With just 108 horsepower on tap (when new, with the air conditioning off, and on a good day), it definitely can’t be called quick by any standard. In fact, it feels like the acceleration was specifically calibrated so that flooring it would eventually get you up to highway speeds at the end of the on-ramp but doing so would not disrupt your passengers at all. Because it probably was. And you know what? That didn’t make it any less of a joy as a driver.
In typical straight-six fashion, it’s all very smooth and the propane-powered Toyota unit—a technical predecessor to the 2JZ—has a robustly pleasant quality to it that made wringing this car out to 85 mph a bit like watching a small dog-with-a-job do its darndest at, well, getting up to highway speeds. Look at it go!
The steering isn’t bad, either. Clearly tuned for long, arduous hours at the wheel, it’s loose, comfortable to operate, and, likely due to sheer vintage, delightfully more analog than a lot of modern-day regular-car steering racks. It’s got a brake pedal that’s progressive, positive, and smooth for passenger-disruption-free deceleration. A lot of it, of course, feels typically ‘90s-Toyota. The way the automatic transmission kicks down is uncannily similar to the first-gen Sienna I grew up driving. Just like that old minivan, the gauges glow green in the dark while the steering wheel is the same, as are the window switches, interior door locks, and handles.
As a taxicab, it’s pretty great. Superbly comfy and a little floaty, but managing to not feel like a complete boat mostly on account of its relatively diminutive size. In terms of raw exterior dimensions, the Crown is straight-up tiny and, I suspect, would almost qualify as a subcompact by modern car standards. At the same time, the back seat is sufficiently roomy for taxi duty. The seats front and rear are very supportive while that period-correct, wooden cover does indeed make things a little lighter on the back, although most of its appeal here remains nostalgically aesthetic.
Sound insulation was surprisingly good, too, with little getting in the way of casual conversation at highway speeds. All in all, it feels like a car that was designed to carry passengers in accessible comfort and be driven for hours on end with minimal fatigue. Because, of course, it was.
Growing up, my mom liked to tell the story of how my dad—a slightly goofy-looking high school shop teacher in his late-20s—went out and got his taxi license as a financial backup plan the second he found out she was pregnant with me. Like pretty much all immigrant parents, my parents came to Canada with the intention of providing me and my brother with a better life. A life that ideally didn’t involve having to drive a red cab for a job, not even as a contingency plan.
Today, I am about as old as my dad was when I was born. Lo and behold, here I am behind the wheel of a red, RHD Toyota Crown Comfort with a meter in the dash. For my job. Funny how that works.
To my knowledge, my dad never ended up driving a taxi, but the same can’t be said for a lot of my fellow journalists back home. As Beijing’s hold over the Special Administrative Region grew stronger over the past few years, pro-democracy news outlets were shuttered and, according to Vice, many journalists and photographers who were laid off turned to the red taxi as a means of putting food on the table. But that’s not to say they aren’t lowkey still fighting for the cause.
Former Apple Daily photojournalist Stanley Lai told Vice that he likes to play anti-government music in his car, and has decorated the inside of his cab with a yellow lion (a Cantonese homophone with "yellow ribbon") as well as a small poster of a cartoon pig that’s also apparently intended as a bit of a dog whistle to pro-democracy passengers. Lai said once customers pick up on this, the taxi becomes a place to vent and he becomes a makeshift therapist for people.
Wu’s taxi, then, seems to have a similar effect, albeit for HK immigrants and ex-pats halfway across the world. Tooling around in it for an afternoon, the old Toyota Crown became a symbol of a Hong Kong that unfortunately doesn’t really exist anymore. However, as I learned through this exercise, appreciation of the culture is alive and well. It might manifest through a HK-style cafe in Vancouver or a tong sui dessert joint in Sydney. Or, y’know, a replica HK taxi in Toronto. Through the smiles people threw our way, the knowing thumbs-ups, the spirit of Hong Kong lives on.
At its core, the job of a taxi is to shuttle people someplace that they can’t get to on their own. Even though it’s not actually available to take fares, this one still does that. Only here, the destination isn’t a physical one.
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