HONG KONG — Getting around this bustling city of more than 7 million can be a challenge, simply because of its sheer size. But during a few days there recently, I was impressed by how many workable options there are — including escalators on steep streets between tall buildings. When you have to move a lot of people around quickly, you can’t wait to sprout wings!
When it comes to public transit, Toronto visitors soon realize that Canada’s largest city has much in common with this bustling metropolis — both have subways, streetcars and regional rapid transit. There are many ways to see what until July 1, 1997, was a British colony, since then with neighbouring Macau one of two special administrative regions belonging to the People’s Republic of China.
With high-rises closely packed over 1,104 sq. km enclosed by the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea, this densely-populated city has ribbons of asphalt freeways that snake around Victoria Harbour and into the surrounding regions.
Traversing the busy streets is not for the faint of heart. With pedestrians and cyclists vying with almost 600,000 privately owned cars and other motor vehicles for split-second heart-in-your-hand narrow gaps between bumpers, there are better ways of getting around than driving.
Most visitors and many residents prefer walking, at street level, on pedestrian walkways between buildings, or save leg power on steep stairs between streets by using the world’s longest enclosed outdoor escalator system and on moving pavements installed 19 years ago in the Central and Western districts on Hong Kong Island.
There are also modern double-decker buses operated by the Citybus and Kowloon Motor Bus private companies, smaller public light buses, more than 18,000 taxis, harbour ferries, helicopter service with three terminals, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system that operates trains in subway and above-ground systems covering just over 200 km and, last but not least, one of only three of the world’s remaining double-decker streetcar systems.
Hong Kong boasts of having the world’s highest percentage of daily travels, with more than 90% or 11 million annual rides made on public transit.
Four things that impressed me most about Hong Kong’s profitable, extremely clean subway system should interest Toronto city Councillors and directors of the TTC.
n The underground trains for many years have been similar to the latest on the Yonge-University line in that they lack doors between the coaches.
n To avoid mishaps, suicides and people being pushed by crowds, tinted thick plexiglass walls are located on the edge of each platform — their doors opening only after the trains come to a stop.
n The costs of operating the subway system are offset somewhat by malls of shops in the stations, some including dry cleaners, banks, photo shops, variety stores and pharmacies.
n MTR builds residential housing units at each station, last year alone totalling $7 billion-HK (about $921 million.) Oh yes, I mentioned profitable: The subway system’s reported net profit in 2007 was $8.57 billion-HK — about $1.1 billion.
Much shorter than the TTC fleet, the brightly painted trams owned by Veolia Transport operate on six major routes in the north part of Hong Kong Island between Shau Kei Wan and Kennedy Town, with a branch in Happy Valley. I say brightly painted, for during my visit this May, I saw none with the same livery.
On a system that dates back 108 years, and now costs just $2.30 HK (30¢) per ride, the 163 recently reconditioned 1950s-1980s Hong Kong Tramways cars are popular with tourists.
With almost 250,000 daily rides, they also provide a major method of transportation for local residents — who sometimes call them “Ding Ding” after the bells drivers use to warn pedestrians as they approach.
Created in 1888, the Star Ferry service operates ferries on four routes across Victoria Harbour.
In addition to providing transportation for 53,000 daily passengers, the double-decker ferries offer a super view of the city’s skyline, which is particularly breathtaking at night.
Other ferry operators service outlying islands, new towns, Macau, plus cities in mainland China, often vying for space with cruise ships and freighters heading in or out of the busy deepwater port.
For something totally different, try riding The Peak Tram.
Also launched in 1888, the funicular railway carries visitors and residents to the island’s upper levels between Central district and Victoria Peak in railway cars operated over 1.4 km by electrically-driven steel cables.
The lower terminus station at Garden Rd. is close to the colonial-era St. John’s Cathedral.
Fitted with wooden seats, the two-car train I rode passed homes, condos, apartments and lushly treed hills. Riders, averaging 11,000 per day or more than 4 million a year, get a breathtaking view of the city — on clear days, less-so when mist reduces visibility to a few hundred metres as it did the day I visited.
At the top, there are plenty of shops and eateries in the Peak Tower shopping and leisure complex at Victoria Gap. The Sky Terrace 428 offers a 360-degree panoramic view of Hong Kong.
En route, you can also hop off at four intermediate stations: Kennedy Rd., MacDonnell Rd, May Rd. and Barker Rd. Bus service to and from the Peak is also available.
The tram system was extensively revamped in 1989, with new tracks, computerized controls and two new two-car trams that can each carry 120 passengers. The journey takes almost five minutes one way, with the sometimes 48% steep incline and maximum six metres-per-second speed creating a G-force that kept us tightly in our seats but without the need for seatbelts.
ENJOY THE JUNK
Finally, for a relaxing ride with a difference, my group boarded the Aqua Luna, one of Hong Kong’s few old-style “red sail” Chinese junks.
The late afternoon cruise across Victoria Harbour from Central ferry Pier 9 beside the Star Ferry Piers on Hong Kong Island took 45 minutes, with fresh ocean breezes offering a welcome respite from the unusual heat that day. A glass of white wine provided by the attentive crew as passengers relaxed on wide cushioned seats also helped.
The view of towering buildings and mountains in the background was simply breathtaking, offering an unequaled panoramic view of the sprawling towers.
The three-sail, 80-passenger wooden vessel was built in 2006 for the Aqua Restaurant Group in a style that began about 1,900 years ago during the Han Dynasty in China. Used as ocean-going ships, current fleets operate throughout southeast Asia and India, but most are based in China.
“Junk,” by the way, is a term stemming from the Chinese chuan reference to a boat or ship, which was broadened into English during the 17th century through the Portuguese “junco,” which in turn evolved from the Javanese “djong.”
Aqua Luna was named after a Cheung Chau Island pirate who terrorized the South China Sea just over a century ago.
As the sky began to darken, we disembarked on the other side of the harbour at Kowloon Public Pier 4 in the Tsim Sha Tsui, then walked to our prebooked restaurant along a palm tree-lined path, past the old railroad station tower and into the old fishing market area.
Later, with umbrellas warding off the cooling showers that predictably fell, we boarded our hired coach for the trip back onto Hong Kong Island via a bridge — a quicker, but not so memorable trip.
Contact the Hong Kong Tourism Board in Toronto, 416-366-2389 or 1-800-563-4582 or see DiscoverHongKong.com/canada.
Cathay Pacific has 10 non-stop Toronto to Hong Kong flights. (For details and reservations, see cathaypacific.com/ca). I flew to Hong Kong in Business Class, which provides comfortable private kiosks including lie-flat seats, then returned in Premium Economy, with wide seats and footrests. Both have individual TV screens and excellent service.
Street escalators and moving sidewalks are free. Passengers riding trains, buses, streetcars, ferries and minibuses can use the convenient Octopus card, a scannable cashless system that can be recharged at every Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station. The card can also be used at parking meters, and many stores, fast food outlets and vending machines. A tourist day pass is available.
Hong Kong has ferries linking Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the outlying Islands, plus Macau and cities in mainland China.
Aqua Luna cruise is about $25 one way. See aqua.com.hk. A ride on the Peak Tram is about $4 return, $8.50 to Sky Terrace 428; kids under 11 and seniors are about half that. See thepeak.com.hk.