Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: Brain Surgery on a Tram

Some people say that if you really want to understand Hong Kong, you have to ride the tramway that runs from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan. Take it all the way from beginning to end – not only do you get to  ramble through the city’s changing neighbourhoods, you are also sitting in a piece of Hong Kong’s history.

There is perhaps no other public transportation system in the city that stirs up nostalgic emotions quite like the iconic tram. Many refer to taking the 114-year-old tramway as daap3 ding1 ding1 (搭叮叮), a nod to the sound of the tram’s warning bells, and “ding ding” has become the endearing local name for the whole system. In the past you would have been able to see the sea from your open roof seat as it followed the coastline of the island. These days, due to a century of land reclamation, it feels like you are deep in the belly of the city.

Hong Kong has the biggest double decker tram fleet still operating regular passenger services. While a lot of the city’s public transportation service has seen major overhauls in the past, the tram is the only one to be entirely made in Hong Kong. The depots where the trams are built and parked have moved around several times, from North Point to Causeway Bay to Whitty Street in Sai Ying Pun in 1989, where it still functions today as the main nerve centre for tram operations.

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Whitty Hong Kong Tramways Depot – Photo by Nicolas Petit

Every morning, as the trams get ready for their daily run, the lights and sounds of the busy depot come to life. The depot is surprisingly small, and it is cleverly arranged into different departments: electrical, welding, machinery, carpentry and paint. All trams are maintained and repaired here, and this is also where each new tram is built. To commend the hard work of all the behind the scene heroes, Hong Kong Tramways has started installing bronze plates on board each tramcar to remind passengers that all trams are designed and crafted in this very depot.

One of these heroes is Master Cheung Kwan-ming. At 57, with a dancing grin and a tall stature that reaches the roof of the tramcar, he is not quite old enough to epitomize the recently unveiled new slogan of Hong Kong Tramways — “Old in age, young at heart” — but his experience as one of the longest serving employees of the company certainly makes him a good representative. Of the company’s roughly 600 staff, around 300 are drivers and the rest work on construction and maintenance. Master Cheung is in charge of the electrical department, which involves the tram’s internal wiring as well as setting up and repairing the computer system that manages the trams. He pulls out a large case, destined to be installed in a new tram, and opens it to show us all the cables and connectors. “This is the tram’s brain,” he says, smiling. 

Cheung came to Hong Kong in 1987 from a village in Fujian, about 100 kilometres from Xiamen. At the time, he came alone to find work. Nowadays, his whole family is here. His first job was moulding plastic for large machines, until one day he spotted an ad in the newspaper for a job with Hong Kong Tramways. It has now been 20 years since he first set foot in the electrical department.

“I started here in my thirties and I’m still here, so I must enjoy it,” he laughs. He says he is proud to work with a company that has been around for so long. “There aren’t many like that anymore. And it’s a big contribution to society to provide a more environmentally friendly mode of transport. It not only provides a tourist attraction, but also so much nostalgia for the city’s people.”

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Master Cheung Kwan-ming – Photo by Nicolas Petit

Cheung learnt the trade like most craftsmen in Hong Kong: from a master (si1 fu2 師傅) before him. Cheung has been based at the Whitty Street Depot since the beginning, starting every day around 7:30am and finishing around 5pm. Most workers used to take the tram every day to the depot, before the MTR was extended to Kennedy Town. HKU Station is now just a short walk from the depot. “Now the MTR comes all the way to the HKU station, I take it directly from Tseung Kwan O where I live,” says Cheung. “I take the tram a bit less, but I still enjoy it when I do.”

About 180,000 passengers ride the tram network every day. The opening of the new MTR line has put up tough competition for long-distance travel — about 20,000 daily riders have abandoned the trams since 2014 — but the tram still wins out for short distances. 85 percent of passengers take the tram for rides of less than four kilometres. Service is frequent and stops are only 250 metres apart, which makes it a convenient way to travel just a few kilometre. “It saves people the trek of going up and down into the MTR,” says Cheung. “And you can get off as close to your destination as possible.” This flexibility also makes its window seats the perfect spot for those seeking to take an intimate shot of Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods.

Taking care of a century-old network is hard work. Every ten days, about 20 trams come into the depot for a routine check-up. A new tram is built every month. There are now seven generations of tram design, the newest one is known as the Signature tram, with an aluminium body and wood seats.  Hong Kong Tramways prides itself on respecting its heritage while constantly reinventing itself with collaborations and innovation. Several trams have been decorated in partnership with Comix Homebase in Wan Chai to give a colourful and creative ride for those lucky enough to catch one. Hong Kong Tramways rebranded itself last May, giving every tram a big smile under its headlights.

“It’s really about showing the happy collective memories the people of Hong Kong have for the ding ding,” says Cheung. And judging from his beaming face, he takes that mission very seriously indeed.

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