A colloquial term referring to Hong Kong’s century-old trams, ‘Ding Ding’ is derived from the distinct double ring of these icons that are striving to retain their charm, even as they move forward to keep up with the demands of a busy city.
Over the last 10 years, I must have travelled to Hong Kong at least a hundred times. Although my visits there were usually short, just a few days or a week at the most, I am fond of Hong Kong, and consider it my second home. However, recently, I realised that I had still much to learn about this vibrant island. I thought that I knew everything there was to know about the place, until I took a ride on one of Hong Kong’s iconic trams. There, on the upper deck, with my headphones on, a brand new Hong Kong revealed itself to me, as I took in the sights on board the colourful marvel – the Hong Kong tram.
Catching the Tram
Hong Kong Tramways, the company that owns and operates the island’s sole tram network, is fascinating to say the least, with its nostalgic-looking tramcars, steady and reliable, charting their daily route wrapped in colourful advertisements.
Established in 1904, the tram network still offers the most economical mode of transport in the metropolis. HK Tramways operates the world’s largest functional double-deck tram fleet – 164 tramcars that run on a 90-second frequency, and carry 200,000 passengers on average a day between Shau Kei Wan and Kennedy Town.
The full 8.5km tramline stretch begins at Kennedy Town, in the western end of Sai Wan, and ends at Shau Kei Wan in Eastern District. An end-to-end one-way ride between Shau Kei Wan and Kennedy Town takes approximately an hour (in ideal traffic conditions). The track traverses many of Hong Kong’s important road crossings, connecting passengers with the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) and Star Ferry passenger ferry service. And in the centre of the route is Happy Valley Loop, a short detour from the main lines allowing for tramcars to turn around, and a convenient parking bay should any of the trams experience mechanical problems.
The Centennial Story Begins
The late 1800s saw an economic boom in Hong Kong, leading British colonial rulers of the day to plan for the development of a tramway network to cope with the demand for better transport systems. In 1902, the Hongkong Tramway Electric Company Limited (renamed Hong Kong Tramways Company Limited in 1910) was founded with the mission to build and operate Hong Kong’s tram system. Two years later, the island saw its first fleet of 26 single-deck tramcars. The various parts of this first generation trams were built in England, then shipped and assembled in Hong Kong.
Over the years, ownership of the company changed hands a number of times until in 2010, when French joint venture company, RATP Dev Transdev Asia, fully acquired HK Tramways Limited and continues to manage the tramlines to the present day.
Behind the Scenes
It’s easy to assume that a gigantic hi-tech enterprise pulls the operational strings of HK Tramways. But the reality is somewhat different. Although the company is up to modern standards, employing the latest quality digital equipment and monitor systems, the work environment is surprisingly modest and down to earth.
As I entered the main operations hub – the famous Whitty Street Depot – I noticed an ambience of classic simplicity, as if I’d stepped into a traditional streetside automobile workshop. Technicians nodded and smiled as I passed by. On one side of the depot, workers could be seen assembling a tramcar, while on the other side of the yard, they were dismantling one, and in a separate space, a car was being wrapped with colourful ad stickers.
One of the most astonishing facts about HK Tramways is that they do not just build their trams in-house, but also produce the individual parts and equipment for all their cars. It’s a company that aptly balances the old and nostalgic with the modern and hi-tech, and this can be seen in the mechanical aspects of the operations as well; it’s a feature that makes the company unique.
Seven Generations of Success
The original 26 first generation single-deck tramcars of 1904 were so well-received that not only was the fleet itself extended, the capacity of the cars was increased as well.
So, in 1912, the single-deck trams were transformed into second generation double-deck cars. It was a simple transformation – garden chairs were installed on the roof of the single-deck trams, with safety rails encircling the edge.
Three years later, the third generation trams were fitted with canvas covers (these were later replaced with wooden ones) to provide passengers with shelter from Hong Kong’s unpredictable weather, and in 1920, the fully enclosed upper deck design, as seen today, became a distinctive feature of the fourth generation models. With further upgrades done in the 50s and 80s, the fifth and sixth generation trams emerged. And finally, in 2011, the the seventh generation trams were created; these are the cars you see on Hong Kong tramlines today.
Antoine Sambin, Commercial & Corporate Affairs Manager, was more than happy to share the HK Tramways story with me.
“It’s difficult to determine the precise age of each tram, because we keep modifying and renewing the cars with new parts. From the 164 trams that we run now, 100 of them are from the sixth generation, while 60 are from the seventh generation.
As a memento of the heritage of Hong Kong’s tramcars, we retain one tram from the fifth generation, which was built in the 50s – the No. 120 car. There are also three second generation open-top trams – two of which are available for charter for private functions, and one used to carry sightseers on the TramOramic Tour organised by HK Tramways.”
The latest seventh generation models that have been running since 2011 are called the ‘signature tram’. Although the original wooden structure was completely replaced by an aluminium frame to improve the durability of the tramcars, their classic look was maintained. “Due to the weather, the old wooden structure had to be renewed every four years. But the aluminium frames haven’t required any maintenance work yet; even now after being in use for seven years, they are in tip-top condition,” explained Sambin.
Production of a new tramcar, or the re-building of an old one, usually takes a period of approximately three months. “We only buy raw materials, and make the various parts of the car ourselves,” said Sambin. “The raw materials are bent, shaped, moulded, smoothened, fitted, assembled and painted, among other processes, in our own depot. We even make the wheels! We are especially proud of the fact that our team makes the control panels for the trams. The panel is made from fiberglass, and we fix all the cables ourselves – there are literally tens of kilometres of cables inside each tramcar!”
Nostalgia in the Air
After a century of being a part of the daily life of the people of Hong Kong, it is inevitable that Hong Kongers have developed a fond attachment to their trams. As the tram operators – motormen and motorwomen as they are called – are on the frontline, they are obviously the ones most in contact with the passengers. At present, the company employs about 300 operators, of which approximately 10 per cent are women.
I met with motorman Chan Siu Chung to learn about the life of tram operators, and I must say that his enthusiasm took me by surprise. Even after 17 years on the job, he clearly still loved it. As I listened to Chan’s stories, it became evident to me the extent to which the tramway is embedded within the social culture of Hong Kong.
“We tend to develop a friendship with many of our regular passengers,” said Chan. “Sometimes, we even get to know their personal stories, and share in the happy and sad moments in their lives.”
Chan related one particularly memorable incident. “A couple of years ago, a lady was travelling with her young son on the upper deck of my tram. I happened to notice that the little boy kept playfully reaching out of the window. Alarmed at his dangerous antics, I stopped the tram, went upstairs and politely asked the boy’s mother to keep her son inside the car to prevent him from getting hurt. At first, she took offence to this, but the other passengers soon joined in, and explained to her that I was only speaking out of concern for her child, and it really was dangerous for him to stick his arms out of the window. Later on, as she got off at her stop, she paused a moment to apologise, and thank me. We’ve since become friends, and her son, who was in kindergarten then, now rides my tram to school! His mother even gives me mooncakes (traditional Chinese cake) every year during the Mid-Autumn Festival.”
The ‘Red Light Meal’ is another tramline story – this one is well-known among the general public. In olden times, when there were no scheduled lunch breaks for the operators, they had no choice but to have their meal during the short span of time when the tram halted at each red traffic light. Then, when the lights turned green, the motormen put away their lunch and continued operating their tram until the next red light. When I was told this story by Sambin, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that in the days of the ‘Red Light Meal’, lunchtime must have been not much more than a series of red and green traffic lights!
Paving the Way
As the world marches on into the vast digital landscape, long-established businesses like HK Tramways face a great number of challenges in their efforts to embrace progression and stay relevant, while upholding the traditional elements that make them unique.
When I asked Sambin about the challenges that HK Tramways faced today, he was quick to point out the operations of the tramcars. “In many other cities around the world, tramlines follow a designated lane. Here, however, due to Hong Kong’s compact space and traffic congestion, trams share their right of way with other vehicles on the road. This constantly slows them down. It is one of the major issues for us. We are currently in discussions with the island’s Transport Department to resolve this. In the meantime, we continue to watch our lines from our internal operations room, which tracks the movements and whereabouts of each tram at any given time. We are also in the midst of developing an AI (artificial intelligence) system that will help our motormen and women in their daily functions.”
On a more sentimental note, Sambin says that apart from traffic problems, another major challenge for the company is balancing the classic iconic image of the tramcars with effecting necessary change in order to modernise the service and better serve the people of Hong Kong. Old-world charm versus modern comforts like airconditioned cars and LED panels in the trams detailing the stops – it’s a delicate balancing act indeed.
The present may be a challenging time for HK Tramways, but it is an exciting time too, as the company is currently undergoing a makeover, which includes a rebranding exercise complete with a new logo.
And in line with its vision for a digitalised future, HK Tramways launched the new iDiscover Ding Ding app (available for free from the App Store and Google Play) in June last year. The Ding Ding app, which displays the hop-on hop-off tram route, is aimed at helping both locals and visitors alike explore the neighbourhoods along the tramline.
Another added feature that guarantees a second look is the wide white smile painted on the front of the trams, which ensures Hong Kong’s tramcars sport a big smile all over the island! “It brings a happy face to the island, and people keep telling us how contagious it is; they smile as well when they see it,” said Sambin.
Needless to say, tramcar smiles are also a hit on social media, with rampant #smiles on Instagram. I hope this new ‘smiling face’ is the precursor to another great chapter in the story of the trams, and Hong Kong’s beloved icons will continue ‘smiling’ for years to come.
Illustration: Tim Lai
Many of the island’s landmark buildings and tourist spots are within walking distance (or a quick bus ride) from the tram stops between Kennedy Town and Shau Kei Wan, making for many great photo opportunities along the tram trail.
A BIG THANK YOU travel 3Sixty° wishes to thank Joey Lam and Andrew Siu from CK Lo & S Lam Ltd (media relations consultancy for HK Tramways) for their invaluable support in producing this story.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Hong Kong from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. airasia.com