This is a new installment of the 5 Things in Hong Kong series. Riding on the coattails of the surprisingly-popular 5 Things I Missed Most About Old Hong Kong entry, today I’m going to share 5 things that I’m glad that Hong Kong kept. Let’s get started!
Trams (a.k.a “Ding Dings”)
Let’s do an experiment. Close your eyes and think about the sounds of Hong Kong. Let me guess, you’re currently hearing waiters shouting orders, the clickety clacks of the pedestrian crossings, and I’m venturing to say that you can’t think of Hong Kong without the iconic bells of the Hong Kong Tramways.
Fondly nicknamed “Ding Dings” by the locals, trams has been part of Hong Kong’s heritage since the first Kennedy Town to Wan Chai Line opened in 1904. Since then, 5 lines and 30 km of rails has been laid, connecting Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan with 120 stops in between.
Fun fact: Tram station shelters were designed as emergency escapes for passengers on the second floor.
Trams are one of most affordable ways to get around Hong Kong. A single ride costs HK$2.3/HK$1.2/HK$1.1 for adults/children/seniors respectively. Emitting zero roadside emission, they are also touted as the greenest form of transport on the island.
Full Hong Kong experience for only HK$2.30!
If you have to be on time, then the MTR is your best bet. The MTR will take you across the island in 28 minutes whereas the tram will take 3 times as long. However, if you have time to spare, I recommend the tram because there is no experience quite like it. See the Western Market of Sheung Wan, Statue Square of Central, Woo Cheung Pawn Shop of Wan Chai, Victoria Park of Causeway Bay, Chun Yeung Street Market of North Point – all on one trip. The leisurely pace is perfect to help you savor the taste of Hong Kong.
There’s always something to look at on the tram
The trams serve not only as a form of transportation, but also as a deified local attraction, on par with the cable cars of San Francisco. In 2000, Hong Kong Tramways Limited misguidedly replaced the iconic “Ding Ding” bells on the tram with a charmless electronic horn. A scandal erupted as a result and the private tram company reinstalled the bells immediately. It was a classic lesson on how not to tamper with a beloved icon.
Can’t imagine Hong Kong without Ding Dings!
Sadly, some argue that the tram’s century of glory might be at an end. Partly due to MTR’s island expansion, recent figures show that tram ridership has been dwindling. If a debate on whether or not to scrap such an affordable and green form of transportation ever comes up, you’ll know what side I’ll be on. Which side are you on?
The Star Ferry today
A few years ago, after a whirlwind night around town, I found myself stepping off the gangway of the old Star Ferry. In many ways, it was an ordinary night. Unbeknownst to me, however, that trip between TST and Central was anything but ordinary – It was a historic moment. As I stepped off, I was greeted by a throng of photographers, reporters, and conservationists. Somehow, I stumbled on one of the last passages to the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier and in the middle of one of the biggest social upheavals of the year.
That was November 11, 2006. The Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier, which has served the city since 1957, was to be demolished to make way for land reclamation. Petitions, sit-ins, and public demonstrations against the demolition lasted for months. Those who have a longer memory will recall that this wasn’t the first time people got upset over changes to the Star Ferry. In 1966, a 25% fare increase (5 cents) sparked one of the bloodiest 3 day riots in modern Hong Kong history.
I guess 5 cent can buy a lot back then (Credit: SCMP)
Star Ferry definitely belongs on this list. Like the trams, the ferry is an important cultural icon in Hong Kong. Service began in 1888 and it ferries over 70,000 passengers across the Victoria Harbour each day. Aside from perhaps a shorter ride due to land reclamations, nothing much has changed over the years. Watch the opening scenes of the 1960 romantic drama The World of Suzie Wong and you’ll see that the experience is largely unchanged – the sliding windows, the wooden chairs, etc.
The World of Suzie Wong (1960) was filmed on the Radiant Star. Things haven’t changed much over time.
To me, being able to jump back in time whenever I’m on the Star Ferry is a big part of the charm. Of course they could install modern chairs, replace the vintage windows, install air conditioning etc, but that doesn’t make it better, in fact, that makes it worst.
The part of the experience that DOES change is the view. Imagine the ride with a timelapse of the Hong Kong skyline. With each second of the 9-minute journey, 86 days flashes by. Departing from Victoria Harbour, you wave farewell to a row of colonial brick buildings. As the ferry picks up speed, Art Deco style structures like the original HSBC building starts to appear. Four minutes into the trip, Japanese bombers roars over Hong Kong and a deadly battle wages on the ground. Six minutes – steel and glass takes over with the Jardine Building honored as the tallest in Asia. Finally, as the ferry docks, you look back and the IFC 2 has just been completed. In its 128 year history, the Star Ferry has truly seen it all.
Hong Kong Skyline around the time that the Star Ferry started (Credit: New York Times)
In a city that embraces changes, its people cherish the things that don’t. Star Ferry is the best way to spend HK$2 for any tourist or local.
Just admirin’ the timelapse
Thanks for reading. Read part 2 here!
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