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On the Rails in Hong Kong
Trams have a snooty French owner, upgrades, loud rumbles from the past
By: Anthony Spaeth
When you live along Hong Kong’s tram line, you awake each morning to carriages juddering over tracks, steel on steel. When your aluminum-framed windows are open, the sound is sharp and regular, with the occasional double ring of a bell, an admonition to pedestrians that always sounds like the driver is having a jolly day.
I recently moved back to King’s Road in Tin Hau after 13 years abroad and resumed my life with Hong Kong’s trams. There are some obvious changes. Bicyclers are recklessly using the tram lanes in a way I never noticed before, usually subcontinental deliverymen, whom I also don’t recall.
Aboard the trams, announcements of stops in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin alternate with nannyish naggings such as, “Please offer your seat to anyone in need.” The bench seating on the left side of the lower deck was changed to forward-facing seats in trams starting in 2011, some made of plastic, and speaking of plastic, Visa cards can be used to pay as you disembark. Or tiny copper coins, as in the past.
A long time ago, you could sit opposite old ladies with live chickens at their feet, blinking and unaware of their imminent trip to the chopping block and wok. The chickens, I mean. “Beware of pickpockets” notices disappeared when Hong Kong reached a certain level of affluence — and I considered some pickpocketing of my own.
A notice still warns passengers against talking to the driver “whilst in motion,” which seems to date several centuries before the trams’ 1904 opening.
Another change: since supermarkets stopped giving away plastic bags, people have started dragging around canvas shopping bags on wheels, which were not anything Hong Kong’s crowded trams or sidewalks were crying out for.
The Hong Kong Tramways seem to have done as much modernizing of tram interiors as possible, although many things remain unchanged, like windows you struggle mightily to raise or lower and the driver’s primitive cab. (Officially, his title is Motorman.) The whole experience feels archaic and intensely nostalgic, possibly even for first-timers.
We think of them as snailishly slow, but the trams’ average speed is 40 kilometers (19 miles) an hour, only half that of the MTR’s Tung Chung Line, its fastest. As far as I can tell, the faster a tram goes, the noisier it gets.
For short trips, they are undeniably efficient. Hong Kongers, after all, know efficient as Inuits know snow. My tram stop happens to be closer than my MTR station and saves me the 3.5 minutes and three escalator rides needed to descend to the westbound platform and the corresponding ascent at my destination. A tram arrives, on average, every 90 seconds compared to three minutes for MTR trains. A tram ride costs HK$3 (US39¢) compared to adult fares of $3.50 to $51 on the MTR, depending on how far you travel. Seniors ride the trams for just $1.30 — US17¢.
For all those reasons, as you feel the grinding of the wheels through your soles, you are surrounded by the old, the infirm or lazy, the frugal or poor, people who don’t seem to appreciate air conditioning and domestic servants from the Philippines conducting very public conversations on their phones. On the lower deck, young people often give up their seats for seniors, another phenomenon I don’t remember from before.
There are 165 trams of many generations, which include two antique trams, an open-top sightseeing tram, and four party trams that can be rented for birthday or company outings. They are fun to spot at night, brightly lit, with revelers downing tall-boys of beer and waving at strangers. Every day, trams make 1,400 trips, unevenly spaced pearls on a 30-km. string, carrying 200,000 passengers. There are 120 white-washed tram stops, moldy but of Bauhausian simplicity, an average of 250 meters apart.
To test their efficiency, I made a journey by tram to the city super retail store in Causeway Bay, a frequent destination, and returned by MTR. Door-to-door, the five-stop tram trip took 17 minutes, 10 seconds, most of it on the top deck watching the world go by. The single-stop MTR return trip took 17 minutes, 52 seconds and involved enough hustling through underground tunnels to qualify as a cardio workout.
For a place as impatient as Hong Kong, addicted to replacing old with new, it’s a wonder the trams weren’t retired decades ago. A suggestion to get rid of them in 2015 went nowhere and the most serious proposal before that was in 1985 with the completion of the MTR’s Island Line, which runs directly under the trams.
I wanted to talk about the Ding Dings — the nickname is a reference to the double ring of their warning bell — with Hong Kong Tramways. I wanted to know if they had a greater proportion of elderly customers than, say, the MTR. (Senior citizens account for 9.6 percent of passengers on the MTR, where they get a discounted fare of $2 regardless of distance.) I wanted to know where the trams sleep at night and how the motorman rings his warning bell — a pedal on the floor? I wanted to ask about their accident record and how the company sees the trams’ future in Hong Kong.
To my surprise, Hong Kong Tramways is not owned by a Hong Kong entity but RATP Group, which runs Paris’s metro, buses, and trams. As a truly global city, any example of globalization should be acceptable in Hong Kong. But this was jarring, as if Mongolians had taken over the Star Ferry (which remains owned by the 137-year-old Wharf company).
RATP is not good with the press. It didn’t respond to online queries. The person answering its phone didn’t know the term “public relations.” After finally being promised an interview with a spokesperson and a tour of the main depot, the company withdrew the offer and refused to answer basic fact-checking questions. This must be a Gallic thing. The MTR answered questions for this story rapidly and politely, as one expects in Hong Kong, all online, no need for an antiquated phone call.
Accusing the tram company of being old-fashioned seems beside any kind of point. The trams’ future is secure for a reason I wouldn’t have thought of: they run on electricity. They were the Teslas of 1904, cleaner than the other vehicles on the roads, which were pulled by defecating beasts of burden, including humans if you consider rickshaws. They still are. They’re retro but relevant. The other day, a woman waited with me at a tram stop but instead of boarding, she passed a loaded plastic bag through a lower deck window to an acquaintance or employer, which was simultaneously old-fashioned, Third World-ish, and completely dependent on the most modern tools of communication.
I particularly wanted to ask Hong Kong Tramways about that noise: 85 decibels, the same as a noisy restaurant or being in a kitchen with a food blender going. The main sound you hear on a tram is a semi-regular crash as wheels pass over joins in the rails, steel hiccups. I wondered if this had something to do with the system’s age or unique design. Trams in European cities strike me as being eerily silent.
By email, I asked the company how many people live with that noise along the tram tracks as I do. There was no response. Perhaps that question explains its refusal to cooperate.
A lot do. North Point, one of its major stretches, was the most densely populated place on Planet Earth in the mid-20th century, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
The sound of a blender across the street and several floors below you isn’t so bad unless it’s constant, as the trams are. That’s noise pollution.
But it’s also constant in a positive sense. Hong Kong is notorious for its relentless pace of change. The very climate has changed: Chinese New Year used to be frigid in Hong Kong but isn’t anymore.
Ancient apartment buildings have survived, often colossal in aspect, some spruced up with new tiling or paint jobs, many not. All those little aluminum-framed windows surrounded by fanciful doodles of water pipes and clothes-drying racks resembling medieval instruments of torture.
Other than them, and the lifestyle they dictate, few things remain totally unchanged in Hong Kong from 119 years ago: the humidity, glossy roasted fowl on hooks and milky jade bangles behind shop glass, staccato Cantonese — and the rumble, crashes, and clangs of the trams.
Anthony Spaeth, a co-founder of Asia Sentinel, recently returned to Hong Kong from an editing position elsewhere