In most countries, there comes a point when economic development produces a defining vehicular symbol of national character. Britain has its red double-decker bus and Thailand the irrepressible three-wheeled tuk-tuk. These days urban Chinese also have their own conveyance of convenience, the yellow miandi (literally "bread- van") taxi, nicknamed the "locust" for its tendency to swarm towards any likely fare.
The miandi, so called because its shape resembles a loaf, is evidence that many urban Chinese can now afford to travel by something other than the traditional bicycle. It first appeared in Peking about 1987, and since then the arrival of the yellow "locusts" in any city has provided a highly visible barometer of economic progress.
Lao Yang, 50, was in the vanguard of this revolution when it hit the city of Yinchuan early last year. Yinchuan is the capital of Ningxia, one of the poor inland provinces which China's leaders cite when they talk of the worrying wealth gap between fast-growing coastal regions and the hinterland. Ningxia, in the drought-stricken north-west, remains impoverished. But since February even Yinchuan has boasted the miandi, one of the last provincial capitals to welcome them.
"At first, people were not sure if they could make money with the miandi," said Mr Yang. "Some tried and the result was very good. So people rushed and wanted to be miandi drivers."
Mr Yang took to the wheel of a miandi four months ago. "I now think of myself as a getihu," he said, using the expression for a self-employed entrepreneur, albeit one mired in old-style bureaucracy. "I have to pay 21 different kinds of taxes," he groaned.
In a good month Mr Yang can clear a profit of 3,000 yuan (pounds 230), about five times his old salary as a driver at the state Foreign Tourism Bureau and, before that, the Transport Bureau. He works up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and in three years will own his vehicle under a hire- purchase deal with the Transport Bureau.Mr Yang is the sort of upwardly mobile character who could be found in the south and east of China more than a decade ago and who is emerging in places like Yinchuan.
He says Yinchuan now has 300 miandis to add to the car-taxis introduced in the Eighties. "The miandi drivers earn the most," he said, although the cross-city fare is just 10 yuan (77p). "More people can afford miandis than car-taxis."
Yinchuan's growing middle classes can be seen clambering in and out of miandis.
"They are people who do private business, like dealing in steel, or wool traders. People who have mobile phones. Some of them can afford to take a miandi to work every day, even if it is a short distance," said Mr Yang.
For Mr Yang, it is not only the increased earnings that matter. "I don't like to be controlled by others," he said, thinking back to his former life. "When I worked at the Tourist Bureau, on Tuesday and Friday mornings every week we had to go to political meetings to be taught about government policy or traffic regulations. Now it is only on the fifth of every month for two hours. We just read the Ningxia Transportation Newspaper," he added.
But old habits die hard, especially in remote parts of China. Mr Yang plans to work as a miandi driver for several years. "After that, I want to go back to my old work unit [the Tourism Bureau]," he said, explaining that it still holds his personal file. "I want them to take care of me when I am retired and sick."Reuse content