Inside the Whitty Street Tram Depot, past cutting machines and welders and a radio playing Cantopop, Hong Kong’s most unusual tram is waiting for its shift to begin. It looks distinctive enough from the outside, with a balcony, a teal-and-gold face and a body covered in a busy graphic collage. But the inside is truly unique: a kind of social club on rails, with three lounges, a bar and a toilet.
“The paradox of public transport is people sit very close to one another but never talk,” says Alvin Yip, co-founder of Circus, a platform for design and culture. Five years ago, as curator of the annual Detour design festival, Yip worked with Hong Kong Tramways to transform four trams into an eatery, an art space, a classroom and a music venue. That made him wonder if he could do something similar but permanent.
Work began on the Circus Tram last spring. Like all Hong Kong trams, this one was built entirely by hand, from the chassis up. “It’s a very craft-driven process,” says designer (and Zolima CityMag contributor) Billy Potts, who worked on the tram with architect Jenny Choi. “I would say that 80 to 90 percent of what you see was made right here.”
As with all crafts, building the tram was an exercise in improvisation. Yip laid out the overall style and vision: something busy and eclectic, “like a cha chaan teng,” he says, with a distinct feel in each of the three rooms. But the details evolved as the project went along. Choi was working in Germany when Yip, who had been her instructor at Polytechnic University’s School of Design, asked her to come back. “When I arrived, only the frame was built – the design was not finalised,” she says.
Everything came together over the course of a long, sweltering summer. The biggest challenge was to accommodate all of the equipment that isn’t normally found in a Hong Kong tram, like fridges, air conditioning and plumbing. That meant finding a way to hide batteries, transformers, air ducts, water tanks and pipes in a visually unobtrusive way. Most of them are lurking behind cabinets and underneath benches. “We were saying this tram’s main purpose is to transport machinery – people just sit around it,” jokes Potts.
At times, Potts and Choi slept inside the tram depot to accommodate the rotating teams of specialists that needed to work on the tram. One day, Choi worked 22 hours straight to oversee four shifts of work, napping occasionally inside one of the contractor’s cars. “I was the only girl [in the depot] so I got to know every employee,” she laughs.
The depot’s workers were sceptical of the project at first, but they came to appreciate it as the design took shape. “They’re very low key and modest about what they do, but they’re actually quite resourceful,” says Potts. “Their equipment is not that up to date, so they have to make up for that in knowledge and skill.”
Stepping onto the tram, Potts and Choi take a seat on the banquette that wraps around the lower floor compartment. “This is my favourite room – it feels the most welcoming,” says Potts. With marble side tables and overstuffed leather seating backed by rattan screens, it evokes the atmosphere of a colonial British social club. In fact, the room’s name, Chatham House, is a nod to the famous London club, whose Chatham House Rule guards the anonymity of those who speak at its events.
Upstairs, The Freudians takes a more modern approach that doesn’t distract from the view off the balcony, which is accessible by a doorway that folds wide open. The other upstairs room, Darwin’s Garden, is a lighthearted space filled with potted plants and flowers. The seats are clad in an embossed coral-patterned fabric that brings to mind theory of how coral forms, a precursor to his more ambitious theory of evolution.
In the centre of the space are three wooden tables made at Hong Kong’s last lumberyard in Yuen Long. “We bandsawed the entire length of a tree,” says Potts. “If you look at the table from the front of the room, you can see the silhouette of the tree.”
A special vase designed by local aroma specialist BeCandle sits on each of the tables. Held loosely by a brass fixture, a glass vial full of dried flowers swings back and forth when the tram is in motion, brushing against a disc coated in scented oil. It infuses the entire room with a bespoke fragrance.
Choi says it’s just one example of many contributions to the tram by local designers and craftspeople. BeCandle is developing a custom-scented soap that will be used in the tram toilet; designer Dylan Kwok found a vintage game of Chinese checkers online, which he then took to a metalworker in Sham Shui Po who turned it into a lid for a tin that contains a hand-drawn deck of cards.
Some of the work was done by craftsmen that are the last of their kind in Hong Kong. The brass fixture that holds up the BeCandle vase was made by one of the city’s only remaining brassworkers, and Choi and Potts were outraged to discover that the government is trying to shut down the lumberyard that supplied the wood they used for their table.
Though the government seems eager to promote creative industries in Hong Kong, the many tentacles of its bureaucracy make it a difficult partner to dance with. “The Hong Kong government is anti- anything new,” says Yip. “Especially with transport. The Transport Department does not want to see anything new because it involves some degree of risk.”
It took political savvy to get an official go-ahead for the Circus Tram. “It’s not about applying for approval,” says Yip. He had to work top down by winning over key government officials, which then paved the way for a positive response from the civil service. “Mid-level government workers are very willing to help – if you help relieve them of their political risk,” he says.
The first hurdle was to justify the need for such an unusual tram. Hong Kong Tramways already operates a party tram that can be hired for events, but Yip says the problem is “it’s all one-off” – people who hire a party tram once are unlikely to do it again. By contrast, the Circus Tram is more like a cultural venue, with a regular programme of performances, talks and other events that are designed to bring people back again and again. In order to pay its expenses, the tram operates like a club, with an annual membership fee of HK$2,500. Patrons then buy between $9,000 and $70,000 in credit that can be put towards events, drinks and food. “We want people to commit to some credits so they come back,” says Yip. Some corporate clients have already bought credits so they can use the tram for employee gatherings.
Circus also sponsors free rides for groups such as tram fans and students, including a group of ethnic minority children from Tseung Kwan O, some of whom had never taken the tram before. The three compartments mean that several groups can be hosted at once. “As a venue it really brings together different people,” says Yip.
The tram has already played host to some memorable experiences. An accordion player serenaded passengers on an early journey, providing a quirky soundtrack to the passing cityscape. Yip got married on the tram soon after its completion. “As far as I know I am the first one to do it on a moving tram,” he says. His wedding certificate lists the “Western Market tram stop” as the location of registration.Potts says he often rides the tram with no destination in mind, chatting with his girlfriend as the city glides past. “It’s a nice thing to do after you’ve been away,” he says. Choi likes taking the tram when she is feeling stressed out. “For me, it’s the speed,” she says. “I’ll just jump on a tram and look at the city. You can see the history and the people, the whole evolution of Hong Kong.”
The Circus Tram captures that feeling and adds something to it. “It elevates the experience beyond a commute,” says Potts. “You’re encouraged by the design to talk to people. It’s not just a way to get from one place to another. The journey is an end in itself.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of trams that participated in Detour 2013. It was four, not three. We regret the error.