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Hidden Hong Kong: A busy history of the Hong Kong bus

By Ngai Yeung 29 September 2020

Header images courtesy of Information Services Department (via Hong Kong Memory) and 昔日香港 (via Facebook)

A familiar sight on the streets of Hong Kong, almost all of us rely on the bus in one way or another. We take it on our daily commutes, on the weekends, or depend on them to take us to some remote area the MTR could not reach. Even after all these years, the bus remains an affordable and reliable service woven into our everyday lives. 

Yet the Hong Kong bus is not only hugely relevant to our present, but to our past as well. Tag along for a ride with us as we drive down the memory lane, looking at how the bus industry bolstered Hong Kong’s meteoric urban development and reflected society at the time.

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Buses waiting at the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier in the 1920s. Photo credit: 歷史時空 (via Facebook)

Born out of necessity

Back in the day, people had to walk—or take the tram. But there were no trams outside of Hong Kong Island, while rickshaws and carriages were reserved for wealthy elites. Thus, the transportation market was ripe for the picking, and buses began to appear on the streets in the early 1900s, with the first recorded route running between the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier and the dockyard in Hung Hom.

Business began to boom not long after and in 1921, the first bus company—the Kowloon Motor Bus Company—was established, followed by a number of others that also jumped into the fray. These early buses mainly operated in the New Territories and in Kowloon, where, being tramless, the demand for transportation was even higher. Instead of the hefty double-deckers we have today, buses back then were small, single-deckers that could only carry around 16 people at a time. For seats, there were three rows of wooden benches that would at times be separated into first-class and second-class seating for those who willing to pay more for some straw to cushion the bumpy ride.

Newly-delivered Dennis buses from England in the late 1920s. Photo credit: Alexander Dennis Limited (via Facebook)

More routes sprang up as the city’s population boomed, and the bus business grew alongside it. However, not all companies were licensed, so the government decided to issue open franchise tenders for bus services in an effort to improve road safety. In 1933, The Kowloon Motor Bus Company (KMB) won the bid to work all routes in the New Territories and in Kowloon, while the China Motor Bus Company (CMB) held exclusive rights to the Island side. Buses run by other companies at the time, such as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels and the Hong Kong Tramways, had to cease operations as the business was brought under more stringent regulation.

A bus on Queen's Road Central during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong in 1942. There were never enough buses to meet demand during the period. Photo credit: Government Records Service

Wartime disruptions

Within a year, KMB’s fleet grew to over a hundred strong. Most models were imported from Britain, manufactured by British brands such as Leyland, Thornycroft, and Daimler. Routes spanned the city from Mong Kok to Fanling, and buses ran alongside taxis and the now declining rickshaws.

Yet these early glory days did not last for long. After Hong Kong’s surrender to Imperial Japan during the Second World War, many buses were destroyed or had their engines repurposed for military use. Things became so bad that in 1944, only two routes were left alive in the entire city and horse-drawn carriages had to be reintroduced. Thankfully, the Japanese Occupation ended after four gruelling years at the end of the Second World War. Military trucks had to be converted to carry passengers before new buses could arrive from England. Once they arrived, class seating was abolished and bus services resumed fully.

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Daimler A, the first model of double deckers in Hong Kong. Photo credit: KMB 九巴專頁 (Facebook)

Booming bus-siness, getting bus-ier

Hong Kong’s population witnessed a most extraordinary rebound after the war, and bus services raced to keep up. Initially, only 600,000 were left in the city by the end of the war in 1945 as an estimated one million Hongkongers either left or were forced to leave throughout the Occupation. These numbers leapt to two million in just five years, as refugees from the Chinese Communist Revolution poured into Hong Kong via the border, bolstered by a post-war baby boom.

To meet the overwhelming demand for transportation, the KMB purchased a batch of double-decker buses from Britain in 1948. Within a few years, the new double-deckers became a common sight in Kowloon, though single-deckers reigned on Hong Kong Island side for a decade more as earlier models could not navigate the narrow and winding roads. The government also helped out with some behind-the-scenes work to accommodate these tall buses, trimming countless trees and raising the minimum height for shop signs to almost five metres.

Bus 16A passing through Shanghai Street in the 1960s. 16A ran between Jordan Road Ferry Bus Terminus and Tsuen Wan West. Photo credit: The University of Hong Kong Libraries

In addition to the driver, double-deckers would employ up to three other staff for each bus. There would be one to two conductors to collect fares for the ride, and sometimes a gatekeeper who supervised boarding by manning the gates on each end of the bus. These were tough jobs, as conductors often had to hold off thronging masses clamouring to get on the bus, especially during rush hour at industrial areas when every worker is in a hurry to get back home. To make matters worse, people back then did not have a habit of queuing (some might say they still don’t), so quarrels and even fights would break out as tensions ran high in the packed city.

Hong Kong was already extremely packed in the 1960s. Photo credit: Jumbo Bus Hong Kong (via Facebook)

Nevertheless, people loved and depended on the bus. There was no entertainment to be found at home back in the mid-1900s—televisions were still too expensive—so most would travel about the city instead during the weekends. Whether it was to go to the movies, swimming at a beach, or hiking, the bus’s abundant routes and cheap fares that ranged from 20 to 80 cents allowed Hong Kongers to commute about for a colourful weekend.

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A bus set on fire on Choi Hung Road during the 1967 Hong Kong riots. Photo credit: 舊時香港 (via Facebook)

A bumpy ride to success

The booming business abruptly came to a halt in 1967. A minor labour dispute exploded into full-scale riots as pro-communists sympathisers clashed with the British colonial government as the Cultural Revolution gained traction in mainland China. Some bus drivers went on strike to protest, but those who didn’t were hunted down and assaulted by rioters. Some buses were even vandalized or burned down. Fearing for their safety, many drivers quit their jobs; those who remained had to be escorted by the police. Only a handful of routes remained during the riots, which incidentally gave birth to the minibus industry as the alternative mode of transportation sprang up to meet unabated demand.

Built in 1983, the KMB Overhaul Centre in Tuen Mun cost $100 million and was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest multi-storey depot at the time. Photo credit: Lam Siu Kit (Facebook)

The bus companies took several years to recover from the turbulent year of riots, having to reorder and rehire the buses and employees they lost. Though the new minibus—and later on the MTR—took some passengers away from their services, they had nothing to worry about as Hong Kong’s population was ever-growing throughout the mid and late 20th century. Soon enough, they were back on their feet again, with business thriving more than ever.

KMB became a listed company in 1961, and CMB followed suit a year after. When the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972, KMB expanded its network into Hong Kong Island, with the first route being bus 101 from Kwun Tong to Kennedy Town. Overnight and express routes also began to pop up as people worked longer into the night, while automatic doors and the One-Man Operated coin box system replaced gatekeepers and conductors. 

A red KMB bus and a blue CMB bus pictured side-by-side at the Mei Foo Bus Terminus in the 1970s. Photo credit: 巴士資訊網 (Facebook)

Accelerating into the next century 

The bus industry has long been dominated by two companies for over fifty years by now. Both KMB and CMB stuck to their territory with prosperous results: in 1976, CMB earned $20 million, the highest in company history and well over a hundred million in today’s money. However, after years of below-par customer service, employee strikes, and a deteriorating relationship with the government, CMB no longer enjoyed the popularity it once had. 

During one particular incident, CMB’s route 15 bus ended its last bus service early, leaving a few hundred citizens stranded on top of a mountain before police vehicles were sent to pick them up. The last straw came when the MTR opened its Island line in 1985, snatching up a big portion of CMB’s regular passengers. The government refused to renew CMB’s franchise when it expired in 1998, and many of its hundred-plus routes went to New World First Bus, the major operator on the Island side today that shares the same parent company with Citybus.

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Non air-conditioned buses were nicknamed “hot dogs” (熱狗) because they were really “hot.” The last of these were taken out of service in 2012. Photo credit: 巴士資訊網 (via Facebook)

Meanwhile, KMB launched a range of changes to improve its service. Even though it doesn’t have to worry about competition from the up-and-coming MTR as much because it has exclusive access to newly developed towns in the New Territories, the company strove to keep up as times changed. In the 1990s, the KMB fleet started to include air-conditioned buses and installed low floor easy access to accommodate the disabled. By 2000, KMB had equipped all its buses with Octopus Card readers and introduced the on-board infotainment system RoadShow, which old-timers may recall. In a bid to be more sustainable, KMB has also been equipping their fleet with greener models, engines, and fuels over the years, and continue to do so today.

New World First Bus and Citybus share the same parent company so that only one company is operating on the Island, just like in the past. Photo credit: @k8_iv (Unsplash)

The road ahead

Aside from KMB and New World First Bus, nowadays we also have the Long Win Bus Company and New Lantao Bus Company servicing routes in Lantau Island. Fortunately, even with the advent of new MTR lines and other modes of transportation, our buses are not going anywhere in the near future. They remain an integral part of our daily lives and an economic and reliable option for getting around. And as we look forward to the changes in store for Hong Kong’s buses in the years ahead, let us not forget the enormous role they have played in the past.

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Ngai Yeung

Former editorial intern

Ngai was born and raised in Hong Kong and is currently studying at university in the United States. You can find her wandering around the city, experimenting with egg recipes and nerding out about the news.