Header image courtesy of @ken93110 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Imagine you’re running late for an appointment on the other side of Hong Kong. Like many Hongkongers, you don’t drive but take public transit. The MTR and the bus could both get you there, but they’re too slow, and the taxi is too expensive. So what do you do? That’s right—you take the minibus!
Cheap, speedy, and convenient, it’s not a surprise that the city’s iconic minibuses rank as the third-largest transportation means in terms of daily passenger journeys at 1.8 million passengers a day. A familiar sight around housing estates and interchanges, the cream-coloured bullets could easily take you across town or reach some sequestered spot, all in a frighteningly fast manner. From its humble roots as a fringe service to being an integral part of the city’s transit network, read on to discover how Hong Kong’s distinctive green-and-red-topped minibuses grew to become what it is today.
The uniformed rows of green and red on the streets today were in fact once a haphazard—not to mention illegal—system, cobbled together by enterprising individuals. Back in the 1950s, Hong Kong only had trams, buses, the Kowloon-Canton Railway, and of course, the Star Ferry. City centres were adequately connected, but those who lived in more rural areas—such as Yuen Long, Sheung Shui, and Fanling—struggled from a lack of public transit. High demand inevitably leads to supply, and despite not having a license to do so, ingenious minivan owners began to ferry commuters around for a fee where normal bus routes cannot reach.
These minivan services stuck to the New Territories and kept low-key to avoid government crackdown, only to debut in the city amidst the chaos of the 1967 Hong Kong riots. Many bus and tram drivers went on strike during that time, badly disrupting the city’s transportation network.
Faced with an opening, the unlicensed minivan drivers were unable to resist the seductive scent of opportunity and presently trespassed into the city to tackle the transportation shortage. One of the first-ever minibus routes came from this period and carried passengers from the Jordan Road Ferry Pier all the way to Yuen Long.
When the city stabilised in 1969, the colonial government finally acknowledged the service’s usefulness and legalised it, issuing around 5,000 licenses for the minivans to operate in urban areas. Some accused the Hong Kong government of sanctioning illegal profiteering; well, I suppose they weren’t wrong, but the decision only strengthened the city’s public transit network into the paragon it is today.
As befitting a British colony, the earliest models were all mostly British vehicles, such as the pug-nosed Bedford CA and the Morris J-type. The minivans could only carry a maximum of nine passengers before but soon expanded to 14-seaters the year it was legalised, upgrading it to a proper minibus. People often called these new models “14 seats” in Cantonese (十四座), a nickname that stuck even after the minibus expanded again to a 16-seater two decades later when the British vehicles were replaced by the Japanese Toyota Coasters still in use today.
These 14-seaters were fashioned with a single red stripe along its side, a feature that carried over into the red-tops of today when the government introduced the newer, franchised green-tops in the 1970s. Following a successful trial run of private luxury minibuses at The Peak, the government tendered and sold dozens of minibus routes to the highest bidder. This explains how unlike most other forms of transportation in the city, green minibuses are owned by an array of different companies in spite of the vehicles’ consistent appearance. Green minibuses are operated by drivers who are paid a regular salary, have fixed routes, fixed fares, and arrive in set intervals.
The speed demons that are red minibuses, however, are a different story. They aren’t run by the government or private companies, but rather by individuals who have bought or rented the minibus.
Drivers pay $600 a day—along with an extra $150 for fuel—to rent the minibus, incentivising them to drive as fast as possible to pick up more passengers. Red minibus drivers can change the fare according to their whims, such as charging more on typhoon days. They can change the route, too, and can technically drive almost anywhere in the city bar some newer districts, which is why you’d never see red minibuses in places such as Tsing Yi or Ma On Shan.
The flexibility can be a downside, though, as it makes red minibuses harder to regulate so that the government won’t be issuing any new licenses soon. Today, only a quarter of all minibuses are red, a percentage that is not likely to increase anytime.
After decades of fearing for their lives on the highway, passengers breathed a sigh of relief when the Hong Kong government mandated for all minibuses to install speed alarms. Even though some daredevils ignore the 80 kilometre-per-hour limit anyway, the alteration made the transportation more passenger-friendly. Other changes over the years include switching to the more environmentally-friendly Iveco Daily Green minibus, installing seat belts across the board, and finally, enlarging the 16-seater once again into a 19-seater in 2017.
Perhaps in a dozen years, the minibus will expand yet again and be redubbed as the “midibus.” Joking aside, the transportation mode’s future does look a bit grim. As the MTR opens up more lines, minibuses lose scores of regulars. The Hong Kong government has also been strictly regulating the number of minibus licenses they hand out to control competition, and the cap of there being no more than 4,350 minibuses in the city at a time has remained in place since half a century ago.
Even if there were to be new minibus routes, it would be hard to recruit younger drivers to join the fleets because of the long hours and low pay. Indeed, many minibus drivers are retired bus drivers, and most are over 60 years old. All the same, the cityscape will never be complete without the familiar hues of green and red, the shared fear of hollering one’s stop, the Cantonese opera blasting from the radio, and the minibus’s signature speed and convenience.