Among the neon signs, glass sky scrapers, frenzied street activity and fast, silent underground trains, remnants of a gentler age still exist in the form of rattly trams, cable cars, boats and trains
Few views in the world are as instantly recognizable as the soaring towers of the Hong Kong skyline.
The outlook is equally familiar, yet exotic, when viewed from either the gracefully antiquated Star Ferries or from the Peak Tram that, in its various incarnations, has plied the route to Victoria Peak since 1888. And if these two exciting modes of transport aren’t enough to capture your interest, electric trams hurtle through the crowded streets below, sending scooters and pedestrians scurrying. To round it all off, Hong Kong has its own Railway Museum.
The bottom terminus of the Peak Tram is a short and interesting walk from the Central MTR Station (Mass Transit Railway - an underground network).
The Peak Tram is, in reality, a funicular and has been rebuilt on a number of occasions, the most recent being in 1989, which increased capacity to 11,000 passengers a day. A journey on the funicular between downtown and the unimaginatively named Peak Tower takes a mere seven minutes, at an ascent of nearly 400 metres. The line is steeply graded and curves its way through bush land as it struggles to climb above the surrounding skyscrapers. The current trams were built by Von Roll, manufacturers of the Monorail trains in Sydney and Southeast Queensland.
The 1.4kilometre line was originally built to serve the wealthy ex-pat community that lives on the peak, taking advantage of the cooler climate. While tourism quickly became the main income generator for the line, it does still serve the local community.
The Peak Tower is a distinctive structure that hosts a large array of shopping, dining and entertainment attractions. These are all linked from the tram by a large number of escalators, eventually leading to an open viewing deck.
Of the world's 20 tallest buildings, 14 are in Hong Kong, which means that the view of the harbour and Kowloon beyond are partially obstructed, indeed it seems the tallest building is almost at eye level with the viewing deck.
Hong Kong Island is separated from Kowloon and the other parts of greater Hong Kong by the Victoria Harbour. As mentioned earlier, the Star Ferries also give visitors a fantastic view of the famous cityscape as they cross the harbour. It is also possible to travel to Kowloon by underground road tunnel (traversed regularly by double-deck urban buses) or in the fast, clean and punctual MTR trains. However, over 70,000 people a day still choose to part with 50 cents (NZ) a day for the voyage across to Kowloon. These classically-styled vessels depart every few minutes from the islands Wan Chai and Central Piers for destinations on the other side of the harbour. The fore and aft saloons on the top deck are air-conditioned, though no-one minds if the windows are left open for photographs.
As the wheelhouse is on the bottom deck, great forward views can be gained from the main passenger deck. The imposing Kowloon pier was designed to protect vessels from typhoons and to speed turnaround times.
If the voyage is memorable by day, it is stunning by night as many of the landmark buildings are lit in a choreographed laser light show, reflected in the harbour to create a dazzling effect.
Neatly bisecting the flat land between the harbour and the peak is the Hong Kong Tramway. The double-deck four-wheel trams ply six intertwined routes of a total length of 30km, the longest route being 13kilometres, between 6am and midnight. The majority of the trams use traditional controllers and electrical equipment supplied by English Electric and run on plain bearings on 3’6” track. There is a flat fare of $2 HKD and the service is very popular with commuters despite the MTR offering a very similar service.
When the MTR opened, the government proposed closing the tram network to ease road congestion, but public feedback left government in no doubt that the tramway should remain. Services commenced in 1904 and they currently operate 163 trams and employ 700 staff. They carry 240,000 passengers a day, and like the other operators mentioned, are a commercial company with a profit motive.
Many of the routes are reasonably flat and tight curves are few and far between, meaning that some very high speeds are obtained for such an ungainly vehicle fighting its way through congested streets. The windows open, including the front ones, which is handy for filming or talking to people in the other tram a few inches away. The full-body advertising on the trams seems to be a source of pride to the tramway company and certainly makes the trams look very distinctive.
Complementing the clean, fast and efficient service offered by the MTR, the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) operates services with similar attributes from downtown, through the New Territories and on to Lo Wu, a gateway to mainland China. Some of the more interesting artifacts from this British-built railway that were made redundant following the electrification programme, are preserved in the old Tai Po Market Station precinct which is about 400metres walk from the modern station of the same name. The architecture of the old station is distinctly Chinese and was unique on the line. Admission to the museum is free and it is popular and well maintained, although there are no operating exhibits.
The collection includes an Australian assembled General Motors diesel locomotive and a narrow guage Bagnall 0-4-4T steam locomotive from the short lived Fanling Branch. This was repatriated from the Philippines for preservation following protracted negotiations. Also on display is a robust motor trolley with a roof and an American style hand trolley. Three generously proportioned though spartan carriages have also been restored, with one serving as a classroom for school groups. The station offices have been restored and authentic furniture, paperwork and paraphernalia (such as a token machine) complete the picture. There are plenty of interpretive signs about the history of the railway and exhibits. The only thing that fell short of expectations was the railway bookshop, which doesn’t have any railway books.
In a city famous for its frantic pace, consumerism and modernity, it is refreshing to turn your back on the neon signs, shopping malls and suit salesmen in order to take a few timeless experiences on some classic transport.