Header image courtesy of Hong Kong Tramways
It makes its way through Chun Yeung Street, housewives with bags of groceries passing under its windows. It slips past the gleaming glass walls of Central’s commercial skyscrapers, joining the rush-hour cars and buses and people. It maps the winding turns between Statues Square and Western Market, both remembering the harbour they were built on that only the latter sees...
Some joke it is the one public transport in the city that might be caught up with on foot. Many more, sometimes those who joke included, pay $2.60 faithfully, day by day. At the heart of Hong Kong Island, the tram stays afloat in the tide of time. Here is a ride that takes us along the tramway tracks and over a century of service, accompanied by the signature chimes for which the beloved “Ding Ding” earned its nickname.
The first of the millions—or billions—of chimes to be heard on the Hong Kong tramways was sounded by a boy as his mother drove the tramcar’s maiden voyage down brand-new tracks, 116 years ago. The complete story of the tram, however, started some decades earlier at the cessation of Hong Kong Island to Britain in 1842.
Up until Hong Kong became a British colony, the little fishing village had had little need for well-developed public transportation infrastructure. The British rule changed the status quo when it brought in an influx of immigrants from the West and threw open the settlement’s doors as an entrepôt. In no time at all, demands of the growing population and trade exceeded the capacity of the existing rickshaws and carriages. The solution to the problem came in the form of Chinese Legislative Council member Wu Ting-fang and his 1881 proposal for a tramway system— to be finally sanctioned in 20 years.
Following the 1888 completion of the Peak Tram (naturally prioritised for the convenience of the upper-class Mid-Levels residents), the more extensive tramway system was soon well underway. Under the Hong Kong Tramway Electric Company Limited—or the Electric Traction Company of Hong Kong Limited, as it was later renamed—a single-track system was laid along the coastline from Kennedy Town to Causeway Bay. An initial fleet of 26 tramcars (10 partially enclosed first-class cars and 16 open-sided third-class cars) came into shape within two years.
It was with much fanfare that tramcar number 16 departed the Russell Street Tram Depot at long last on 30 July 1904. Mrs P. N. H. Jones, the wife of the acting director of Public Works, pulled the lever with perhaps too much excitement—reports suggested the vehicle went forward in quite a flash. Thus began a journey that would continue into the twenty-first century, though neither Jones Jr. sounding the bells nor the guests at the cocktail party on board were to know.
Surprises are many when you introduce a tramway system to a place where nothing of its sort had ever been seen. The tram company was certainly unprepared for people’s unfamiliarity to the new form of transportation. In the early days, curious crowds gathered to observe trams and rushed aboard for a glimpse at every stop. Few knew trams must keep to the tracks or stay out of the way, meaning there were further delays. Most exasperating of all was the discovery that pushing carts on the tracks was infinitely easier than doing so on uneven ground—which, of course, coolies were grateful for. Various inventive disturbances to the tram service ceased only after specific legislation was passed in 1911.
The capacity of the trams also proved insufficient. The first-generation single-deckers were not near enough for the expanding city, so The Hong Kong Tramway Company Limited (after its second name change in less than 10 years) looked upwards and emerged with a second-generation model with an open-top upper deck in 1910. The next year, as the first-class garden seats found themselves constantly rained on in the Hong Kong weather, a canvas roof was added. These became known as the third-generation trams.
They were the trams that might have first crossed the harbour to Kowloon, had the Kowloon Tramways come to fruition. Back when the fully enclosed prototype for the modern tram was just an idea, the tram company was pushing for the tramway network to cover the Kowloon Peninsula. Multiple proposals were put forward between the 1910s and early 1920s, ranging from routes to Shenzhen to a bridge over the Victoria Harbour. Unfortunately, the circumstances were never quite right, with the First World War happening on one hand and budget concerns on the other, else a harbour-view tram route may have been our reality today.
The years leading up to the Japanese Occupation saw the Hong Kong tramways on track with new routes and the beginnings of a double-track system, but all these ground to a halt after 8 December 1941. Under fire, trams were forced to stop operating during the Battle of Hong Kong. Tram services—alongside those of other forms of transportation—were suspended on several occasions even after the Japanese military took control of the city, and could resume only with limitations. A small fleet of 12 trams trudged on between Sheung Wan and Causeway Bay over the three years and eight months, under the shadow of wartime damage and a severe lack of resources including mechanical parts and fuel.
Such was the need for maintenance, that by the time Hong Kong was returned to British colonial rule, only 15 trams out of a fleet of 109 remained operational. It took a solid year for the trams to recover and take off anew for the next stage.
There was a lot to recover from. There was also the opportunity to revamp the trams and tramways as they were rebuilt. One key step forward was the birth of tramcar number 120, the first of the streamlined fifth-generation trams, which, with its vintage dark green exterior and wooden frames, is still a welcome sight on today’s streets.
The appearance of the iconic tramcar in 1949 was among many changes that paved the way to the present Hong Kong tramways picture. In seven decades, the tramway system has expanded and been modified to be entirely double-track and have a total of six routes across Hong Kong Island. Unpowered single-decker trailers served briefly in the 1960s to accommodate more passengers, while aluminium alloy tramcars and eventually an air-conditioned model—the one and only number 88—replaced a number of the traditional wooden vehicles. Drop-in coin boxes replaced the ticketing-and-conductor way of things in the early 1980s, to be joined again by contactless machines.
All the while, the trams were making history in cultural fields. Renowned writer Eileen Chang’s 1978 novella Lust, Caution and director Ang Lee’s award-winning adaptation famously features Hong Kong tram scenes. The similarly acclaimed Rouge, a cinematic classic adapted from local novelist Lillian Lee Pik-wah’s 1984 work, tells the tale of a long-deceased courtesan who seeks traces of her lost love in trams. As trams have moved towards the modern on the actual tracks, so have they progressed in words and on film.
The current Hong Kong Tramways is the largest and only tramway system in the world to have an exclusively double-decked fleet. Few have seen more of Hong Kong Island, or have grown old the same way with generation after generation of the city’s people.
Is it slow? You could say that, in comparison to the rest of the traffic. Is it absolutely necessary? Maybe not, considering the alternatives buses and the MTR offer. Recent calls for the tramways to be torn down have nevertheless been met with outrage. Sometime in the future, elimination is a possibility. Yet the anomaly that is the beloved “Ding Ding” still fits perfectly into the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, a living relic fondly held on to.