From Kowloon to Kennedy Town

An exploration of the hidden beauty and history of Hong Kong's tram line.

It’s surprising, that if you look inside a tourist guide to Hong Kong, its century-old tram system will almost inevitably crop up. Along with the sweeping visions of metropolitan Hong Kong available from the Peak and the incense-heavy feelings of antiquity garnered from Man Mo Temple, these guides will encourage you to pay HK$2.60 (the equivalent of 25p) to hop on what locals affectionately refer to as a ‘Ding Ding’ and cross the length of Hong Kong Island.

They are advertised as an entertaining pastime, giving a little cross-section of the city with all its different layers, and have become emblematic of the uniqueness of Hong Kong life. The system is only in place on the Island, and so does not extend to Hong Kong’s other two territories of Kowloon and New Territories, and the guides encourage tourists to be attentive, spontaneous, but most of all light-hearted.

But the trams’ innocuous design disguises the fact that they can be used as a lens into the city, to delve past its reputation made up only of gleaming skyscrapers, ascending economic growth and a secure positioning within the Asian Tigers.

To ride them is to reveal something more beneath a shiny, one-note facade of ricocheting development. Today, riding the trams gives an intimate, up-close view of the city. Unlike the MTR, Hong Kong’s underground transportation system, the tram tracks are not hidden away.

They cut right through the centre of the public streets, offering an immersion within the teeming metropolis – teeming with crowds enduring the tropical heat, with high-rise buildings forming a crooked and glitzy skyline. In this lively, ultramodern city, then, there’s actually something quite romantic about riding the comparatively archaic trams.

Though modern tram systems exist throughout the western world – in Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Istanbul – the fact that initial proposals for the Hong Kong system stretch way back to 1881 seems to transport the rider to a bygone era. It’s a nostalgic act to sit in a rickety box with no air conditioning and jarringly uneven tracks to watch the city go by, instead of taking the high-speed MTR line or hailing a taxi.

There’s even something admirable in the fact that this humble, quaint old thing has survived the various national traumas of the 20th century to continue providing for the people of Hong Kong today.

Yet despite its anachronistic feel, the trams have still modernised with the times. There used to be a class distinction, with first-class passengers given the privilege of riding the open-top deck and the third-class ones given limited space below, but by scrapping class differentiation and permitting female conductors to drive in the early 1970s, Hong Kong Tramways has in its own way reflected social progression.

More recently, following the 2017 rebranding, the firm is under pressure to increase fares to HK$2.30 per ride for adults – the equivalent of 0.22 British Pound Sterling – to be able to continue the tram line’s history and functionality. Taking the tram isn’t only a quaint pastime, then, or a sweet reminder of your grandma’s copy of ‘The Trolley Song’ from Meet Me in St. Louis.

It can also be an effective way of bearing witness to the many socio-economic contradictions of the city. If you ride on the lower deck, you are upfront and face to-face with urban street life, with late-night fruit stalls and weary waiters smoking outside somewhat dilapidated restaurants. But if you travel on the upper deck, you get that postcard perfect image of the Hong Kong skyline; skyscrapers jutting out and whipping by at every turn, their square windows gaping open and twitching with light.

You breeze by the bright lights of the Admiralty district, where many of the city’s banks and major corporations live, much like in the City in London. In other words, it makes clear the distinction between the western vision of the high-speed development of the Island and the reality of its intermediary state.

Although the areas of extreme poverty in Hong Kong lie in Kowloon and New Territories, a gentler but still potent disparity in the development of the Island is visible from the trams.

From the very wealthy Wan Chai district, where the residents have the highest household income in the whole territory, the view pans out to the less affluent areas the further east and west the tramline takes you. It is a socio-economic disparity as well as a visual one; the tram travels through Central, where less than 5% of the population live in poverty, to Shau Kei Wan, where some areas have as much as up to 25% of the residents living under the poverty line, in around half an hour.

The Island’s development feels disorderly and asymmetrical. The end of the tramline feels like an entirely different world to the one that we start with in central Hong Kong. Quiter, more remote, being beside the water: whilst there is a clear socio-economic disparity across the Island, when you have been in the hectic city for a longer period of time, the quiet is a welcome change.

The overwhelming density of tall buildings only really subsides when the tram reaches Kennedy Town, a small area by the seafront, on the corner of the Island. The difference as the tram pulls in is striking – though no district in Hong Kong can provide a true reprieve from sky-high housing blocks, Kennedy Town comes closest to offering a withdrawal from the city’s assault on the senses. It is quaint and quiet in contrast to adjacent stops and has a feeling of remoteness. Its relative calm is one of the benefits of the tram system; the trams do not interrupt community life – they allow for organic growth, for areas to develop slowly and retain their local identity.

It was only with the establishment of the MTR station in Kennedy Town in 2014 that the area received the first shocks of gentrification, with the government successfully emulating the style of economic growth and infrastructure development that the mainland government in Beijing is known for: aggressively pushing through plans over steady evolution. Luxury flats now line the waterfront, and in 2016 the government even planned to bulldoze the local Cadogan Street Temporary Garden – a welcome patch of green within the city – to make way for them.

Despite its failure to do so, insecurity among residents with regards to this kind of pressure remains; the anxiety over the potential erosion of their community persists. Even as a tourist, used to the sights of fancier restaurants and coffee shops in areas such as Admiralty — an extension of the central business district — the imminent gentrification is obvious. And it’s the same tale in thousands of cities around the world – it is not exclusive to this once isolated community at the corner of Hong Kong.

But rather than giving the government an excuse to pander either to corporations or to the government in Beijing, the tram system coexists, side-by-side, with the Hong Kong residents.

But as the tram line heads back into the districts of Central and Admiralty, you see some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The whole purpose of the tramway’s initial existence was to serve the primarily foreign inhabitants of these areas, as well as providing access to Victoria Peak, a mountain offering a startling panorama of the cityscape below and residences worth millions.

The Peak Reservation Ordinance, in effect from 1904 to 1930, enforced the legal segregation of the white and Chinese populations, ensuring the Peak area was inhabited exclusively by non-Chinese people (who were being pushed from the mainland into Hong Kong due to the spread of bubonic plague); during certain hours, the Peak Tram was similarly reserved for wealthy Europeans.

However, the clustering of expats in Central occurred more organically, with wealthy residents naturally gravitating towards more upmarket and expat-concentrated areas. Such demographic cleaving between the ethnic-Chinese and the colonialists was accommodated to and upheld by the government when deciding, for example, where to construct smooth-running transportation systems or where to reclaim land.

The tram track initially ran along the waterfront, closely following the undulating of the Island’s edge as it moves up and down like camel humps. But it has been pushed further inwards by constant land reclamation, and signifies the relentless prioritisation of British needs.

When, in 1855, then-governor Sir John Bowring proposed to reclaim land that would directly affect what was then called Praya Central, he received flak from British merchants who had private piers along the waterfront. Naturally, Bowring chose to begin reclamation work in the Western District, populated mainly by ethnic-Chinese inhabitants, instead.

But despite coming into contact with this history, the more you travel by tram the more you realise that it can also be a very flawed means of understanding a place. In the moment of travel, you are imbued with a tourist’s eye. Yes, you are exposed to the intimacies of street life or to these kind of moments of local history, but only ever in a passing, ephemeral fashion.

The tram travels slowly enough to give the impression of immersion, but as soon as you get up close, it whips you away again; there is no time for idle contemplation. As a result, it forces the rider to dismiss what they just saw, rather than fully engage with it. Although most of the 200,000 passengers that Hong Kong Tramways transports everyday are commuters, the tram feels like a tourist’s vehicle – for the visitor who desires a glimpse of ‘actual life’, but desires to go no closer; who seeks out intimacy with a different culture, but is too apprehensive to dig any deeper.

But more than this, trams, like most forms of transport, are naturally teleological, setting the rider on a determined route. There is no freedom of travelling, no turning down hidden alleyways or discovering secret gems untouched by tourists’ eyes – it is not in itself a vehicle of exploration.

But the fixed route laid out in Hong Kong can seem problematic, when it is understood that it has been conditioned by the colonial origins of the system. The first trams began operation in 1904, well into the British colonisation of the territory, with the first tramcars being built in the United Kingdom.

The trams are iconic in Hong Kong as a kind of historical quirk of the Island, but it begs reminding that that history is saturated with Western domination. That’s not to say that the experience of travelling by tram is therefore invalidated – Hong Kong’s reunification with China is only a recent affair, so it’s not at all unexpected that a great proportion of its culture and infrastructure has inherited this colonial residue.

The fact that the areas dotted along the tramline are the greatest cultural inheritors of this residue means that riding the trams breeds a very expat-oriented experience. Expat Focus ran an article entitled ‘The Best Places To Live In Hong Kong’; six out of the eight locations they recommend are accessible using the tram system, and only one lies outside Hong Kong Island.

Even the more remote Kennedy Town is now attracting an expat community and cultivating a more cosmopolitan slant. Though this cannot be said of the whole Island – especially of the less affluent areas towards the east – and though the socio-economic disparities are still visible, the inclination towards a somewhat inauthentic experience is still felt.

It’s felt especially when stopping at the Happy Valley Racecourse, which was built in 1845 as a form of entertainment for the British and now serves as a major tourist attraction. The fact that for tourists, the tram system facilitates journeying to the Happy Valley Racecourse highlights multiple tricky issues. The racecourse was built for the purpose of entertaining the British – the fact that it still remains a tourist highlight shows that Hong Kong still remains in the grip of British traditions, perhaps. g.

So, when riding the trams, you feel like you’re immersed, as if you’re really getting to know the place; but in reality, you are only getting to know the parts that history has carved out for you.

Tram tracks, like most elements of a city, are laid out by the winners of whatever cultural conflict it serves as a site for. The notion that Hong Kong is the epitome of economic development and the landmarks of British colonialism is a naive one. Beyond the skyscrapers which house the big corporations, there is a much more honest Hong Kong.

Though tramhopping is great fun and originated the idea for this piece, and though swinging to and from different parts of the Island is both entertaining and socially informative, there is a sense that there is much more of the Island that is off-limits; that ultimately, you’re only getting half the story.