Kevin Sinclair's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2007, 12:00am

A veteran SCMP reporter, Kevin examines the good, bad and ugly sides of life in the city. E-mail him at

Last Wednesday I was driving steadily down Argyle Street when an old grandmother decided she wanted to cross the road in front of me. Brakes squealed, cars swung, horns sounded. By a miracle she survived.

It reminded me of the bloody years of the early 1970s when 1,000 people a day arrived in Hong Kong. They came from villages across the Shenzhen River in rural Guangdong. Often their lives consisted of rice paddies, their main means of transport the family buffalo.

They wandered through the streets of Hong Kong gazing in wonder. They did not take into account the whirlwind of fast-paced Hong Kong streets. Many paid with their lives.

Most were older women, gnarled, hardened peasant farmers who did not take a liking to the horseless carriage. There was no understanding about the traffic regulations. As the matriarch of their family back in rural Guangdong, people stopped for them. In Hong Kong, they were fearlessly crossing the road daring any oncoming traffic to take their best shot.

It was a frightening and bewildering time for drivers.

If it wasn't old ladies, superstitious peasants would lie in ambush until an unsuspecting driver would come along. It was thought that if you had a dragon spirit following you, the only way to release it back into the spirit world would be to have a near-death experience with a car!

Waiting in silence, the peasant would spy a car coming along at a decent speed. Suddenly, the unsuspecting driver would see a mad pedestrian throwing themselves in front of his car. Brakes would squeal and horns would sound. It was a near miss.

Clearly irate, the driver would turn around to give the pedestrian a good talking to - only to see his friends congratulating him. He had cut off and released the dragon.

Most of the pedestrians who died killed themselves. They leaped over safety barriers and blatantly ignored safety regulations. Others wandered into busy streets among trucks and cars.

The government was forced to introduce a campaign to educate pedestrians. The message was sent through newspapers, on the radio and in the cinemas - targeting the newly arrived.

It seemed to work. In 1970, there were 143,687 licensed vehicles on the street and 367 deaths. This number nearly doubled to 260,928 vehicles in nine years, resulting in 458 deaths. With a far larger population and 609,595 vehicles on the road, the figure has dropped, to 144 last year.

One needless fatality last year was young Lo Hon-foon, who was killed on his way to catch his school bus to Yat Sau Primary School in Choi Hung. The accident happened at 7.30am. The van driver hit the child in Tseung Kwan O and the boy sustained a double blow when his head crashed onto the cement road. This happened in front of his 11-year-old brother, who was admitted to hospital suffering shock and trauma.

Hon-foon, an affable Primary Two student, was declared dead on arrival to Tseung Kwan O Hospital.

Unlike the old ladies from rural Guangdong in the 1970s, young Hon-foon was an educated student who obeyed the traffic regulations in his quiet neighbourhood. It was a needless death.

Today, pedestrian death is no longer an everyday occurrence but the government still strongly advocates road safety.

With the slew of pedestrian injuries and deaths involving construction trucks in the past year, private companies are fighting back. Construction company Gammon has created a device that helps its drivers when they reverse their large trucks.

A common complaint is the lack of visibility when reversing the huge vehicles. Gammon plant manager Vincent Tong Wei-ching has created and installed a camera and television mechanism into the company's fleet of trucks.

Costing a mere HK$4,000 per truck, the camera is mounted in the centre of the rear bumper. It is connected to the small television screen next to the driver's seat. While reversing, the driver uses the screen and the two sensors on the corners of the bumper to safely back up the truck.

'It is actually quite a simple design,' said Mr Tong, who has a passion for engineering. 'The truck drivers really like it. Safety is a priority so whatever we can do to help our drivers, we are happy to.'

In this year alone, there have been 14,479 pedestrian traffic accidents, 119 of them fatal.