Rid­ing the rails of time

China Daily (Canada) - - HONGKONG - By WANG YUKE in Hong Kong wangyuke@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.”

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