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Four city trams given a makeover as designers celebrate a Hong Kong icon

Ticket For its fifth anniversary, design series Detour takes it to the streets with a celebration of Hong Kong's trams, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 7:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 6:02pm

Interior designer Linny Sze Ling-lee has lived on Hong Kong Island for 25 years and made use of trams nearly every day. So when she was asked to take a photo of an interesting city sight for her final-year project at Polytechnic University four years ago, she snapped the tram tracks in Wan Chai. That photo, which she still keeps on her phone, has since inspired an ambitious public design project that finally came to fruition last Friday when four customised trams rolled out on the tracks.

Sze's trams are the centrepiece of Detour, an annual series of programmes showcasing original ideas from young creative designers from Hong Kong and abroad. Organised in parallel with the Business of Design Week, Detour, which runs until Sunday, previously transformed disused historical sites into a showcase for cutting-edge design. This year, to mark the fifth anniversary of the Detour festival, organisers Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design decided to take, pardon the pun, a different route.

These trams are almost like mobile performances for the city

"In the past few years we made good use of a historical building or complex but this year we wanted to do something different," says Sze, a member of the curatorial team.

Hong Kong trams formed a cutting-edge system when they were launched in 1902; at a time when most of the world's tram systems were powered by steam or pulled by horses, Hong Kong's was fully electric. The largest exclusively double decker tram system on earth, the ding dings, as local trams are affectionately known, have proved a powerful tourist draw as well as an inexpensive form of transport, carrying about 230,000 passengers daily along its 30 kilometres of tracks. They have run mostly unchanged for more than a century.

But more than simply present the tram as a means of transport or a symbol of historic Hong Kong, Detour project director Alvin Yip views their tram programmes as an opportunity to show how good design can affect people's lives. "It's not just how we use it but how it looks, how it relates to the city as a whole."

Building on Sze's graduation exercise which explored the potential of the tram as a moving space that engages with the culture of places along its route, the four trams customised for Detour act as transport and as exhibitions in their own right.

Different teams of designers were brought in create a specific immersive experience - educational, meditative, musical and culinary - and the public can get tickets for the ride that piques their interest.


A tram dedicated to learning, this one features a library stocked with art books on the upper deck and exhibitions of Hong Kong trams below. Authors will host book club discussions on weekday evenings, with a variety of art classes and workshops held during the day. Tram enthusiasts will be onboard to tell stories from its history. A series of social innovation seminars, which started yesterday, are also being held until Friday.

Black Box

Covered with a reflective skin and closed off from the outside world, the Black Box tram creates an oasis among the urban chaos. Sit back, relax and listen to some of the poetry inspired by the city on the lower deck or go upstairs and enjoy a multimedia experience with the passing landscape, inverted and projected on the walls.

Music Box

This tuneful version trundles along with live music (rock bands as well as Cantonese opera singers will perform) on its open-roof upper deck during the day; at night DJs will spin sets. At the lower deck is an art installation.


Detour's way of giving back to the community, this tram is booked to serve breakfast to groups of elderly folks, and afternoon tea to the underprivileged each day, all catered by the Hotel Icon. But at noon, the upper deck is open to anyone who brings their own lunch. Or, donors can buy a ticket to one of the special 20 plate fundraising dinners. The lower deck will serve as a casual standing bar area.

Organised in collaboration with the Hong Kong Design Centre and the PolyU Jockey Club Design Institute for Social Innovation, this year's programmes aim to challenge the notion that exhibitions are restricted to the sanitised confines of an art gallery.

"We've walked out from the exhibition space to try and be proactive and get in touch with people," Yip says.

Not that they have dispensed with more conventional spaces. Five venues - Oasis Gallery in Central; PMQ, the former Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road; the Hennessy in Wan Chai; the Oi! art space in North Point, and the Shau Kei Wan tram terminus - will host a variety of design exchanges, pop-up displays, seminars, dance performances, fashion shows and workshops. All are on the tram route, and on a human scale in keeping with this year's theme, From Microtopias to Social Innovation.

"[Microtopia means] it's not about grand utopian visions: big buildings or express railways. It's about individualised space and how everyone can change the city just by changing small things around them," Yip says.

And that means taking design out of the hands of the artists and the privileged few and bringing it to the people, out of the high-end galleries and to the streets, and the city's inexpensive trams provide one of the best ways of doing that.

But then Yip feels there has always been something else special about the city's tram. "It is about the slowness, because in Hong Kong everything is very fast. The slowness relates to people on the street.

"We wouldn't do it in the MTR, for instance, because then it becomes kind of internalised: a pretty event for those that are privileged to be in the cabin," says Yip. "But these trams are almost like mobile performances for the city. It's about inspiring people everywhere on the street, what we can change about the intimate spaces around us."

charley.lanyon@scmp.com For more information, go to detour.hk Trams are open to all, but you must book a free ticket from the website to ride


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