Hong Kong reveals itself from the upper deck of a tram: human, cacophonous, alive. The city of the past sidles up to that of the present as you pass by its buildings and people. Running along the north side of Hong Kong Island, from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, along 30 kilometres of tracks, one of Hong Kong’s 163 trams takes you on a journey that lasts anywhere from a few minutes to an hour and a half, from 5am to midnight.
Little two-storey boxes made of wood or aluminium, attached to an electric cable, narrow, rickety, covered in often gaudy advertisements, the trams are a bit like the landbound equivalent of the Star Ferry; historic icons that have become an integral part of the Hong Kong landscape.
There have been seven generations of trams since 1904. Like all new innovations, they were initially criticised, by some for stealing work from rickshaws, by others who were fearful of the effects of electricity. They quickly became established, evolving over time. The trams acquired a second deck in 1912, which was covered in 1925. Between 1965 and 1982, the trams carried extra passengers in a trailer. The system eventually diversified its trajectory by offering a total of six routes.
Built entirely by hand in Hong Kong, inside the Whitty Street depot in Shek Tong Tsui, the tram has earned a place in the city’s heart that no doubt makes buses jealous. Every month, a new tram is put into service, keeping the appearance of the original model while introducing a number of discreet improvements that take into account the comfort of the 115 passengers that each tram is authorised to carry. See if you can spot the differences. The 55 new Signature model trams have aluminium frames, not wood. The awkward turnstiles at the rear entrance have been scrapped. Stations are now announced on LED panels.
Inside the trams, passengers are lost in thought; most of the noise comes from outside. Schoolchildren, the elderly, domestic helpers, office workers, tourists – all of them dreaming, observing. Sitting on a rattan bench on the mythic number 120 tram, the only vehicle that has not been changed since the 1950s, or maybe sitting more comfortable on one of the latest generation trams – either way, the city’s spectacle unfolds before your eyes. The best place to sit is upstairs in the front row, window open unless it is raining, but don’t neglect the pleasure of being immersed on the lower deck, where passengers sit laterally.
Speaking practically, the tram is the best way to travel over a short distance. Pretty and poetic, it is also a worthwhile vessel for longer journeys – up to you to choose your route! In Central and Admiralty, the tram is unimpressed by the iconic buildings past which it travels: the HSBC Building, Cheung Kong Center, Bank of China Tower surround it with luxury, though it seems more at home with the Court of Final Appeal and the old Bank of China. If you head towards the west, you will head past the dried seafood vendors of Des Voeux Road, with their intoxicating aromas and bustling pushcarts, past shop signs with Chinese characters in hyponotising shade of red, past laundry drying outside the windows of Catchick Street. In Kennedy Town, the tram drops you a few steps from the sea, recalling how the tracks originally ran along the waterfront, before land was reclaimed from the harbour.
To the east, after the busy commercial districts of Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, you could travel to peaceful Happy Valley, passing along one-way tracks that date back to 1922. Don’t miss the North Point terminus, reached rather exotically by passing through the bustling Chun Yeung Street market, where it seems as though you could buy a catty of dragonfruits simply by reaching out from the window. If you travel all the way to Shau Kei Wan, you will encounter a more residential landscape, with a glimpse of the sea near 651 King’s Road, where green hills nestle up to the old buildings of Tai Koo Shing, which are connected by an intricate net of footbridges. The Shau Kei Wan terminus has the atmosphere of a village: you aren’t quite sure whether you are still in Hong Kong, let alone in 2016.
For the tram line’s 330 motormen, driving a tram is mostly about avoiding the many obstacles along the tracks: carts being pushed by often very old men and women, bicycle deliverymen hurrying to deposit steaming lunchboxes, wayward pedestrians. Everyone seems drawn to the seemingly empty tracks. The double ring of the tram’s bell is what gives it is legendary nickname: ding ding! There are other, more imposing adversaries—car traffic and giant buses, belching, inelegant—that prevent the tram from reaching the 40 kilometres per hour at which it should be travelling.
The tram stays on course, despite these obstacles. At an average of 10 kilometres per hour, it has the deliberate pace of someone who is mindful of the weak. For offering a mode of transport that is both affordable (HK$2.3 for an adult, regardless of distance) and sustainable (it has always been powered by electricity), Hong Kong Tramways received the Jun-zi Corporation Award, which recognises businesses that respect the core values of Confucianism. The prize was received with great pride by the tram company’s enthusiastic French director, Emmanuel Vivant. Among those values: 仁 (jan4), which can be translated as “humanity” or “benevolence.”
Riding the tram, it is being part of Hong Kong while observing it in a slow motion. The line between tourist and local melts away, not to mention the distinction between young and old, rich and poor. For at least a few minutes, everyone travels together in peace, in the same direction, along the same tracks.
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.