When Yiu Chau-leung was a little girl her father took her to Shanghai.
While most details of the trip have become blurred, one incident is still vivid in her mind.
The driver of a taxi they got into was a woman. “And I thought that was very cool,” laughs Yiu, “as women drivers were very rare at that time and I wanted to be one.”
Yiu moved to Hong Kong from Shanxi province when she was 15. She tried night school but found it too hard to study and hold down a day job. So for the next few years she worked in supermarkets and factories, until her boss moved his factory to the mainland.
Yiu achieved her dream to be a driver 19 years ago. It was probably not the sort of driver she imagined she would be all those years before in Shanghai – Lai signed up to be a tram driver with Hong Kong Tramways.
Now, just 30 out of the 290 drivers are women.
“It’s very easy to learn how to be a tram driver but it’s hard to master,” she says. “You have to make constant judgments along the route and so there is a lot of concentration. I work six days a week, eight-hour shifts, with a lunch break in between.”
The biggest headache for tram drivers is motorists and pedestrians who don’t pay attention to oncoming trams
“People are often on their mobile phones either talking or texting as they walk along and they don’t pay attention to the traffic,” Yiu says. “So they often wander across the track, so you have to be ready to break at all times. Then there are cars, which cut in front a lot.”
The famous “ding-ding” sound does not come from a bell pulled by the driver but is activated by a pedal, says Yiu, revealing one of the secrets of the tramways that have been a part of Hong Kong’s heritage for nearly 110 years.
Yiu is proud to be part of its success.
She says while the trams have been revamped, the French owners’ plan to introduce air conditioning has been put on hold because a lot of passengers don’t want it.
The trams are maintained at the Whitty Street Depot in big workshops. It’s also where they get regular facelifts and have their adverts changed.
Yiu is often on the North Point to Whitty Street route but the roster changes depending on demand – if the service is expecting more people on a particular day, more drivers will be assigned to that route.
“Most of the passengers are fine, and many thank me as they get off,” she says. “But occasionally there is an annoying passenger. You’ll be on the route, say , from Shau Kei Wan to Sai Wan, which is quite long, and someone will go on and on: ‘are we nearly there, yet?’”
Pets aren’t welcome, so Yiu occasionally has to ask passengers to get off with their pets. “The exception to that is guide dogs,” she says.
On the odd occasion that a tram breaks down: “Usually what happens is that each tram has two motors, so if one motor breaks down you ask the passengers to get out and you take the tram back to the depot with the other working motor. Otherwise, another tram will come up behind and push the broken-down tram.”
When not on the tram, Yiu enjoys hiking. “I hike everywhere!” she says. “There’s not much to go for on Hong Kong Island, so I usually head out to Lantau.”
But her first love is her job. She’s achieved her ambition of being a driver and enjoys the interaction with the public.
“A tram is so convenient for passengers as you go around Hong Kong. The shops and restaurants are so close together you can just hop on and off,” she says.
“I love the uniqueness of the tram. Without the tram, it wouldn’t be Hong Kong.“