For a long time, I dared not step into a Hong Kong minibus, afraid I might never step out again. I blame the tourist guidebooks that highlight the difficulty of being understood by the drivers of these 4,350 little vehicles, each carrying 16 people to the four corners of the territory. As the moods and personalities of the drivers seem to cover the whole spectrum of what humanity has to offer, you have to count on a bit of luck before embarking for the first time on one of these cream coloured vehicles with a red or green roof, sharing the experience of the 1.8 million people who ride minibuses every day.
Green minibuses are the most affordable. They run along fixed routes with clearly marked stops, though it seems to me that many passengers get on and off at unregulated spots. The most difficult thing is making yourself understood to the driver when you want to alight. A simple, clearly pronounced “jau5 lok6” (有落) does the trick; rising from your seat gets the message across, too.
So there – you’re now able to step aboard one of the 3,233 green minibuses, whose salaried drivers work for no less than 30 companies running 69 routes on Hong Kong Island, 83 in Kowloon and 201 in the New Territories. Their lines are numbered, as opposed to red minibuses, whose routes are described simply by a starting point and a destination.
Red minibuses offer a different kind of adventure. There are no fixed stops, so it’s up to you to announce to the driver where he should part with you. It’s a departure that will need to be made without wasting any time: drivers lease their vehicles for HK$800 per day and earn more money the more trips they make. They don’t hesitate to speed in order to pick up and drop off as many passengers as possible, running the risk of treating them a bit roughly. These risks unfortunately lead to dramatic — sometimes lethal — accidents. That accounts for the 70 kilometre per hour speed limit imposed on minibuses, not to mention the speed indicator that passengers stare at dozily over the course of their journey. The alternative to making as many trips as possible is to raise fares, which are unregulated on red minibuses, which is what generally happens on typhoon days, when other transport options are limited.
While they might seem to have always been part of the landscape, minibuses appeared relatively recently. They date back to the riots of 1967, which were accompanied by a bus strike that pushed the population to find creative ways to get around the city. The progressive legalisation of this system led to the current fleet of Public Light Buses, as they are known officially. From nine passengers at the beginning, the maximum number of passengers increased to 14 and then 16 in 1988. A further increase is currently being negotiated.
That would come at the cost of the character and charm of this form of transport. Sometimes called maxi taxis, they lend a certain intimacy to community life. They have the flexibility of a taxi while also offering a brief instance of sudden proximity with strangers. In his 2014 book Hong Kong State of Mind, writer Jason Y. Ng sees in them “an egalitarian experience in an otherwise stratified society. Just when strangers start to bond and first acquaintanceships begin to blossom, one by one passengers holler their desired stops and return to their disparate lives.“
But it’s also a space where people form recurring bonds. Regular passengers rub shoulders with one another, haranguing the driver, discussing, chatting. A schoolgirl is greeted by the driver’s complicit smile every morning at the same time. If she doesn’t show up one winter morning, he worries. This connivance is unique to lines covering less densely populated areas, those that are less frequently covered by other forms of transport like the MTR, tram or bus. You can see it in the minibus running between Shau Kei Wan and Shek O. The driver knows the villagers, to the extent that riding this line on a weekday gives you the feeling of crashing a family reunion. He is still friendly towards those weekend wanderers who have come to hike the Dragon’s Back, dropping them off as if by habit at the start of their trail.
The expansion of the MTR continues to cast a shadow over the future of minibuses. Cheung Hon-wah, president of the Hong Kong Public Light Bus Owner and Drivers Association, worries about the extension of the MTR’s Kwun Tong Line to Whampoa and the imminent opening of the South Island Line. “Under government policy, the MTR is the main form of public transport,” he says. “The government owns a lot of shares in the MTR Corporation and of course they put themselves first. Red minibuses are a twilight industry.”
You can’t help but lament the trend. These picturesque blocks of red and green form one of the building blocks of Hong Kong’s identity; seen from above, they look like plastic children’s toys. They are speeding embodiments of the human experience, climbing the hilly roads of Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods, bunching together in places like Mongkok. It would be a shame not to climb aboard.
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.