Travelling by tram the way to see Hong Kong
Hong Kong's Kai Tak is the last word in airport modernity and its Airport Express train into town is a model of quiet, speedy efficiency. The city's gleaming MTR subway system, with its air-conditioned carriages, is the envy of many another city.
But for the visitor the best way to get around Hong Kong Island is in a less rapid and less technologically advanced manner: by tram. The century-old system that snakes for 30 kilometres along the island's north side connects the big-name sights and glossy international shopping of Central to a host of lesser-known street markets and traditional Chinese businesses, and its trams rumble along slowly enough for passengers to take in all Hong Kong's immense bustle and variety.
The flat fare is HK$2 (about 25 cents), and this two-dollar tour is the best value for money in town.
You board the tram — a battered, double-deck metal canister with rounded ends — through a turnstile at the rear, and it's best to make your way up the narrow spiral staircase to the top deck, originally reserved for first-class passengers, for views over the traffic and for eye-level encounters with Hong Kong's large expanses of bilingual neon signage.
It really doesn't matter where you get on, or where your tram is headed, or if you spend a whole day riding the system from end to end. But, for example, the No. 5 eastbound from Central will take you past rows of familiar shopping and the dignified buildings of the colonial era, now dwarfed by the towers of global banking concerns.
There's no air-conditioning, but the windows are all open to let a cooling breeze waft down the tram as it moves along. There are stops on average every 250 metres, but the trams travel for the most part in their own dedicated lanes and have priority over other traffic when they don't, so while speed is modest, progress is more persistent than that of other traffic. If you see something of interest and want to get off, drop your HK$2 in the slot as you alight from the front of the tram.
You might, for instance, want to hop off to see the Suzy Wong-era nightlife of Wan Chai, still surviving along with many traditional buildings, or ride on a little further to see what's happening under the Canal Road Bridge. Here, in an old tradition rarely seen anywhere else, middle-aged ladies seated on tiny wooden or plastic stools sort out the problems of those who consult them by beating and burning papers representing their enemies.
Around Causeway Bay there's a warren of budget-priced back-street shopping, and pungent smells from the vast copper vats of traditional herbalists waft through the tram's open windows before it turns off towards Happy Valley with its forest of pencil towers surrounding race course, bowling green, and cricket ground; all so English, and yet so odd when fringed with palms.