Riding the rails of time
The distinctive ding ding, clank clank, heard from a distance is often the first herald of the approaching double-decker tram winding through Hong Kong’s busy downtown streets.
As the vehicle glides to a halt, passengers hop aboard, wriggle through the narrow turnstiles and do what they can to find a seat. Those fortunate to find seats on the wood-feature compartment on the upper deck are treated to a great view of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
The tram bumps along, rattling over steel rails, the breeze wafting through the open windows. These are among the reasons that trams, which have been operating for 110 years, are beloved of Hong Kong people, even now.
Marking the anniversary, a tram open day party was held over July 30 and 31. There’s a new book by illustrator Stella So, featuring Hong Kong trams. The book — The Tram. Its People. Its Parts. Its Stories — was featured at the recent book fair.
“We see the 110th anniversary celebration as a fresh opportunity to popularize Hong Kong’s tram culture, to refresh the brand, not only among local people, but (also) among people from outside Hong Kong,” says Emmanuel Vivant, managing director of Hong Kong Tramways.
A major turning point in the rich history of Hong Kong’s trams was the change from the original direct-current trams to alternating-current vehicles to save on electricity in 1911. The vintage single-deck vehicles were replaced by the open-air double-deckers in 1912. A tarpaulin was added to the upper deck the following year. The covered models didn’t make their appearance until 1925.
The trams are now in their seventh generation. There are 163 classic trams on the rails today, including two openbalcony, dim-sum vehicles available for private tours.
The Hong Kong government has been actively involved in efforts to preserve the venerable tram culture.
The service’s two routes are limited to Hong Kong Island. One travels between Shau Kei Wan and Kennedy Town, the other goes to Happy Valley. The fare is HK$2.30 for adults regardless of the length of the journey, HK$1.20 for children below 12 and HK$1.10 for seniors over 65.
Last year, the company put out a “black box” tram in collaboration with two government-financed design institutions. The tram’s enclosed interior was equipped with movie projectors and a music box. Sometimes, live music performances take place on board.
“We’re pleased that the innovation generated a lot more attention,” Vivant concluded. He said trams are not restricted to a single compartment. The space is versatile and may be adapted to function as a music recital hall, a dining room, or a cinema.
Although there are more modern trams that are technically more sophisticated, Vivant assured, “We’ll never replace traditional trams with those updates.”
Every month since 2011, the tramways company has produced a “signature tram” fitted with LED panels, ventilation for motormen, and flap entrance gates.
“It never occurs to me that the modernized installations damage the original flavor of trams,” he insists. Except for the high-tech additions that are driver-friendly and create greater ease for passengers, “we keep trams’ outlook unchanged, we keep the wood benches and window frames intact, to retain that sense of warmth and history.”
Lau Siu-shan, a motorman, has been working in Hong Kong Tramways for 22 years. “As long as the company retains me, I’d love to drive trams for good.”
Working conditions have improved since the old days.
“We had our lunch behind the wheel,” he recollects. “There was no allotted lunch break. We bought takeaway lunches at street diners, grabbed several bites and wolfed them down while (we) stopped at red traffic lights.” They were called “red light meals” back in those days.
“I really cherish the times when we would buy lunch for fellow drivers who couldn’t get them during their duty. We’d hand the food to them when we met en route,” he muses. “I’ll never forget such intimate bonding.”
Eric Lee, the founder of the mini-tram cultural museum at Hong Kong Trams Station, says he prefers the route that terminates at North Point. It runs through the busy wet market on Chun Yeung Street, one of the oldest open markets in Hong Kong.
“This section is most worthy of a cruise on the tram,” said Lee. “A dense congregation of residents and street vendors is common on the street. It’s a reminder of the good old days. The tram chants its ‘ding, ding’, passing straight through the flocks of people. It’s quite fun!”
Today, the tram is more than an affordable commuter line. It’s a timeless icon of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and an important means by which tourists get to know the city.
Lee’s idea of the Hong Kong Trams Station serves as an essential medium to channel the tram culture to the world.
“Displays of mini or life-size tram models are a precise expression about how the longsustained transport form has evolved. It’s an educational experience to both locals and tourists.” Lee says, “It’s a shame that the government hadn’t taken the initiative to promote the unique culture, so we took the lead in (a) bid to preserve as well as sell the asset far and wide.”
Morris, a first grader, was on the tram with his mom on a rainy day. He keeled on the seat, stretched his arms out of the window and then cupped his hands to collect the rain droplets.
“I like playing with the rain on the tram,” he murmured playfully. His mother said he also liked sightseeing on the tram and they often took tram rides for fun during their leisure time.
Wang Yongdi came to Hong Kong from Hubei province with his wife last September to take care of his newborn grandson. The elderly couple quickly took to trams. They took a tram ride to the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal to have a cross-border vacation , or simply jumped on a tram for sightseeing. Tram rides have been their favorite pastime.
To retirees, the tram serves as a nostalgic reminder of their tender years. Despite the frequent presence of trams in Hubei, Wang appears unimpressed by his hometown counterpart.
“It’s mundane and not irreplaceable”, he says, “It’s been modernized, (but) not as much of a throwback to the past as Hong Kong trams. The biggest difference is that the tram in my home city does not run on tracks. It is operated with a steering wheel.”
“The thing is, when trams swerve to dodge other traffic and negotiate busy roads, aerial cables often fall off. So drivers have to get out and reconnect them before resuming the trip.”