I jumped in the cab, told the driver (in Cantonese) where I wanted to go, he repeated it and I responded with "Ho Ho" to confirm. So far, so good.
Then he asked me a question! Help!! I grunted something to indicate I didn't have any idea what he was talking about, he repeated what he had just said, and I figured out that he was checking that I wanted to go through the Shing Mun tunnel. Funny question really, since the alternative would be a significant diversion, probably taking twice as long and costing twice as much. However, it seems that some (normally older) taxi drivers feel obliged to check that you are willing to pay the toll to go through the tunnel, even though it's only a few dollars.
It's totally my fault, of course. If I had made a bit more effort to learn Cantonese then simple exchanges such as this one would be no problem at all (or "mouh mahntaih" as we say). I had the same problem with French - people seem to have this irritating habit of asking questions or saying other things you don't expect, rather than just understanding what you have asked and giving the scripted response. That's why I normally stick to the normal British approach of talking in English and expecting people to understand. Which reminds me of a marvellous letter in last week's Sunday Morning Post from a reader who was frustrated by the limited English of many shop assistants in Hong Kong. Disgraceful, I call it - as we know, shop assistants in London are fluent in at least three European languages...
Back to the taxi problem, it is something I've come across before in equally puzzling circumstances. I wanted to go from Kowloon to the New Territories, and jumped in a taxi outside Diamond Hill MTR station, which is almost next to the Tate's Cairn Tunnel, gateway to the New Territories. So what did the taxi driver ask me? Yes, indeed, he was keen to know whether I wanted to use the tunnel. Well, yes, actually, I did. Anyway, the good news is that I now know the Cantonese for "Tate's Cairn Tunnel" - and it has nothing to do with Tate or Cairn, whoever they may be.
I have to say that one of the best things about Hong Kong is that the taxi drivers are generally very good and fares are not expensive - in fact, I reckon this is the best city in Asia as far as cabs are concerned. Taxi drivers in Bangkok never seem to have change, and just can't seem to resist the temptation to rip you off - I had a very frustrating time last time I was there on business, turning down "special offers" in favour of using the meter, and refusing to pay a premium for using the highway - and Manila seems to have a similar problem. Singapore, on the other hand, seems to suffer from an acute shortage of taxis. As for China, the less said the better, I think.
In London, black cabs are only readily available in the centre of town, and they are much more expensive than Hong Kong. Fortunately, fares in other major cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, are more reasonable.
So I think I'll settle for Hong Kong taxis, even if the drivers do sometimes ask you strange questions!