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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of the Peak Tram, the city’s iconic funicular railway

By Beverly Ngai 3 June 2021

Header image courtesy of @andrew_angles (via Instagram)

In no other domain is the seamless co-existence of modernity and cultural heritage better epitomised than the local Hong Kong public transportation system. While most parts of the city are well-connected by the sophisticated MTR railway system and extensive bus networks monopolised by KMB, New World First Bus, and Citybus, old-school trams and ferries remain popular options for navigating around. But when it comes to travelling up and down the forested slopes of Victoria Peak, the century-old Peak Tram is unequivocally the prevailing solution.

Laying claim as a pioneer of its kind in Asia, this boxy, red funicular tram has been trundling along the steep route between Central District and the upper regions of Victoria Peak since 1888. Covering a distance of 1.4 kilometres and a dizzying 400-metre ascent, it is not only the most direct route to The Peak, but it also promises spectacular outlooks over Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbour. As we bid farewell to the fifth generation of the Peak Tram, let’s take a nostalgic jaunt through the history of our city’s iconic funicular railway.

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Photo: The Peak Tram 山頂纜車 (via Facebook)

Beginnings of the iconic funicular tram

Call it a vintage mode of transportation if you will, but the Peak Tram was nothing short of a revolutionary feat of engineering at the time of its completion. We can trace the beginnings of its inception back to the mid-nineteenth century, when an elitist residential neighbourhood began to blossom on The Peak.

Standing as the tallest mountain on Hong Kong Island, The Peak has long been home to the city’s most privileged and wealthiest inhabitants, housing the summer lodge of colonial governments from as early as 1867. By 1883, around 30 to 40 families resided on The Peak. But before the iconic cable-driven wonder graced us with its labour-saving presence, the prestigious locale was accessible only by horse or sedan chairs.

Nowadays, trekking up the Peak on foot might be a fun recreational activity taken upon by choice, but one can only imagine the drudgery of doing so day in and day out when vehicular assistance was not even an option.

Photo: Apple Daily (via Facebook)

And thus in 1881, former Scottish railroader and entrepreneur Alexander Findlay Smith put forward a funicular railway system to ferry people up and down the staggering heights of The Peak. It was not a wholly altruistic proposal simply for the good of its residents: Smith had just acquired The Peak Hotel just a few years prior, so the game plan was that the new Peak Tram would attract more visitors and bolster his hospitality business.

Once approval was granted in 1882, work commenced. Seeing as the intended passengers were a demographic of upper-class elites, a good deal of effort was poured into ensuring that the railway would be first-rate in every respect. In preparation, Smith travelled across Europe and America to learn the ways of their inclined railway mechanics and amalgamated the best of their methods into the design of the Peak Tram. Construction was no easy feat, either. As the mountainous terrain was difficult to access by machine, most of the heavy gear and rails—which weighed over 136 kilograms each—was hauled up the Peak by brute manpower.

After three years of toil and sweat, the Peak Tram was finally given life on 28 May 1888. Cutting down what had been a gruelling hour-long trudge to a comfortable 10-minute ride, it’s no wonder that the Peak Tram proved to be an instant success. On its very first day of operation, it served 800 passengers; in its first year, 150,000 passengers—to put into perspective, that’s almost the entire population of Hong Kong at the time!

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Photo: 昔日香港 (via Facebook)

A series of evolution

The Peak Tram we see today may have a retro façade, but it has come a long way since its earliest form. The first generation of the legendary railway was powered by a coal-fired steam engine, while the body of the tramcar was made of wood, with several open rows of slatted seats that could accommodate up to 30 passengers at a time. Oh, and did we mention that there were no doors and that more than half of the carriage had open sides? Talk about bracing yourself for an adrenaline-pumping ride!

Despite the open layout, you could not just sit anywhere you fancied. The carriage was divided into three classes based on social ranking. First class was for British colonial officials and residents of Victoria Peak, with the two seats at the front designated for the governor until 1949. There was even a bronze plaque affixed to the seats that read “This seat is reserved for His Excellency the Governor.” It was only in the last two minutes before departure—when they were certain that the governor would not be riding the tram—that the seats were made available for other passengers. If you were a member of the British military and Hong Kong Police Force, you would sit in second class. Third class went to commoners and animals.

Photo: 昔日香港 (via Facebook)

Chugging tirelessly up and down Victoria Peak for nearly forty years, the first generation of the Peak Tram finally retired in 1926 and was replaced by an electrical system. The decision to invest large sums of money into revamping the Peak Tram in 1924 was a particularly bold one, considering that the first road to the Peak—Stubbs Road—had just opened the year before and many presumed that the bumbling funicular railway would not survive the new competition. Thankfully, the facelift paid off and served to further its popularity.

Over the following decades, the Peak Tram saw four major overhauls. Every few decades, it would upgrade its passenger capacity, efficiency, and quality of service in response to the tram’s ever-growing demand. The original wooden trams were eventually traded out for lightweight, metal-bodied cars. A computerised control system was installed and the colour of the carriage changed from burgundy red to green and back again.

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Bumps along the road

A lengthy history inevitably comes with a few bumps along the road. Although the Peak Tram was designed to meet the highest of railway standards, no transport mechanism is completely impervious to natural disasters. Victoria Peak, on which the funicular tramway was built, is covered in forested hillsides, and it meant that the precarious landscape was susceptible to damage in times of heavy rainstorm and flooding. 

Over the course of the century, there have been two incidences where extreme weather did its dirty deed and dislodged the steep tracks between Bowen Road and Kennedy Road. The first time occurred in 1899 and the second in 1966. Fortunately, no major accidents involving the Peak Tram have been recorded to date.

During the Battle of Hong Kong in the Second World War, the Peak Tram also fell victim to the Japanese occupation. On 11 December 1941, Japanese soldiers pummelled the barracks on the Peak and severely damaged the tram’s engine room. Further compounding the damage, it was alleged that the superintendent engineer at the time had cut the essential wires of the railway system to render it unusable by adversaries.

After this episode, the Peak Tram was put out of service for half a year for repair. Yet, even after the tramway was fixed in June the following year, it was predominantly used for transporting weapons. It was not until the end of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1945 that normal service resumed.

Photo: @dennistth (via Instagram)

Enduring charms of the Peak Tram

In spite of the tram’s numerous reincarnations and the vicissitudes of history, the charms of the old-fangled funicular tram have remained undiminished. As Victoria Peak evolved into one of the city’s most popular attractions, what was once an exclusive service that catered mostly to affluent expat residents on the mountain become a nostalgic and distinctly Hong Kong experience enjoyed by locals and tourists from near and far.

One of the main draws of the Peak Tram is its far-reaching aerial views of the city and evocative journey to old Hong Kong. But on top of the obvious, many visitors in recent years have also been fascinated by an amusing optical phenomenon that can be experienced while riding on the tram, whereby surrounding skyscrapers appear to be unnaturally tilted, as if falling over towards The Peak.

Coined as the “Peak Tram Optical Illusion,” this is an extraordinarily confounding trick to the brain, as under normal circumstances, we are hardwired to perceive the world around us as standing upright relative to gravity, no matter how we jump around, lie down, or tilt our heads. According to a psychological study by the University of Hong Kong, the illusion is a result of the reclined position of the body interacting with environmental features of the ride, as well as the window frames and other details of the tram carriage. It is further amplified at night when external visual cues that are used to orient one’s sense of gravity are drastically reduced.

New generation on the horizon

If you want to see this curious optical illusion with your own eyes, seize the chance to do so soon, as the current fifth-generation Peak Tram is coming to the tail end of its lifespan. The Peak Tramways Company announced that 27 June 2021 will be the last day to ride the familiar red carriages that have faithfully served Hong Kong for over three decades, after which tram service will be suspended for half a year to pave way for the sixth-generation upgrade. The new makeover will involve increasing the tramcar’s passenger capacity from 120 to 210 passengers, expanding the two terminal stations, and replacing the control systems and cables.

While this extensive overhaul signals the end of an era for the Peak Tram, and many are sad to bid the classic tramcars goodbye, it is not all gloom and doom. With the sixth-generation model on the horizon, the Peak Tram is once again granted another rebirth and long life, and the opportunity to continue its enduring legacy as one of the city’s most prominent historical and cultural assets.

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Beverly Ngai

Junior editor

A wanderer, chronic overthinker, and baking enthusiast, Beverly spent much of her childhood in the United States before moving to Hong Kong at age 11 and making the sparkling city her home. In her natural habitat, she can be found baking up a storm in her kitchen, journalling at a café, or scrolling through OpenRice deciding on her next meal.

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