The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers

THE DRIVER: It's a struggle but he loves the road and flexibility

Mr Sun has been a freelance driver for nearly 10 years. The limousine van he uses to ferry tourists and visitors here on business or for events is like a second home to him as he often ends up sleeping in the vehicle.
Mr Sun has been a freelance driver for nearly 10 years. The limousine van he uses to ferry tourists and visitors here on business or for events is like a second home to him as he often ends up sleeping in the vehicle.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Many nights, Mr Henry Sun goes to sleep not in the warmth of his bed, but curled up on the passenger seats of his limousine van.

The 50-year-old driver of the passenger carrier often has to resort to this when a client's late night out coincides with an airport pick-up at the crack of dawn. "Sometimes I only have three hours in between," he says. "If I went home to shower, it would be all gone. So I rest in the van. It's like a second home to me."

Mr Sun has been a freelance driver for nearly 10 years. "It's a one-man show," he says. "Everything, I bao ka liao (Hokkien for 'handle everything')."

His clients are mostly tourists whom he is introduced to through tour agencies, or foreign visitors here on business or for events. In between these, he fits in the odd Uber or GrabCar trip for extra income.

An O-level holder, he went through a variety of jobs, including as a car salesman, a cabby, and helping out at his father-in-law's coffee shop, but none of these gave him the satisfaction of being his own man.

  • FAST FACTS

  • NAME: Henry Sun

    AGE: 50

    JOB: Driver of limousine van

    A FREELANCER FOR: 10 years

    EARNS PER MONTH: $5,000

    ADVICE FOR OTHER FREELANCERS: "Your hours will be very irregular so your family must be very understanding even before you start. Always communicate."

In 2007, a friend approached him for help. His brother had lost his licence due to drink driving and needed someone to chauffeur him around. Mr Sun agreed, and liked it so much that two years later, he bought a seven-seater Mercedes van for $100,000 and went into business on his own.

"My friends told me to do my own thing," he says. "I thought it would be free and easy; own time, own target." It turned out to be a slog. A hard day means 10, even 12, hours behind the wheel. He brings in about $5,000 a month, but takes home $2,000 after deducting overheads such as vehicle maintenance and loan instalments.

NOT SO EASY

My friends told me to do my own thing. I thought it would be free and easy; own time, own target.

MR HENRY SUN, who found himself 10 to 12 hours behind the wheel on a hard day.

This, he said, is comparable to the earnings of a taxi driver, but he need not pay rentals to a company and has the added bonus of being his own man. "The freedom is there, and the flexibility."

Mr Sun says drivers like him operate in informal tribes, or "fleets". Each fleet has a WhatsApp group with hundreds of members, who are brought in based on reputation by existing members who vouch for them.

Should one driver be unable to pick up a passenger, he will seek help from the fleet - a move known as "throwing the job" - and pass the gig to whoever "catches" it first.

It is a system that requires a great deal of trust in one's fellow drivers. Mr Sun says he continues to keep track of whether the other driver shows up on time and treats the passenger well. "The responsibility is there, because it's still my customer."

He must sometimes weather dry periods, during which he might go an entire day without a single passenger. "In the past one to two years, the market has not been very good and there are fewer tourists," he says.

"I live on a month-to-month basis. It's a struggle sometimes - we chalk up credit card bills, borrow from parents and friends, and wait for the good times to come around."

The long hours and late night calls also take a toll on his social life. A divorcee with two daughters aged 17 and 21, he is now dating a 43-year-old bank administrator, whom he calls to update on every job he is on. "I explained to my girlfriend early on that she must understand what I do," he says. "If I have to rush out in the middle of the night, she must know it is for work and not because I am meeting someone else."

But he plans to stick with this lifestyle so he can continue to savour the freedom of the road. "I love driving," he declares.

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'THE DRIVER: It's a struggle but he loves the road and flexibility'. Print Edition | Subscribe