WHEN the government announced that Lily Yam Kwan Pui-ying was to be the next Commissioner for Transport, the question that the media and public asked was: 'Who is she?' So remote was 49-year-old Mrs Yam from the 'frontline' of government duties that, although she has spent 26 years in the civil service, the only picture of her a Chinese newspaper could dig out of its archive was a quarter of a century old. Other papers did not even have one. The black and white photograph featured a nondescript young girl with long, dark hair as a city district officer for Wan Chai in 1970. Mrs Yam admitted to being amused by the publication of the faded photograph and feeling uneasy with the amount of public attention her new job was bringing. It dawned on her that being Commissioner for Transport was a very public role. It is also unlike her previous backroom jobs as secretary-general of the Standing Commission on Civil Service Salaries and Conditions of Service, secretary of the Independent Commission on Corruption Review Committee and Commissioner for the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA). However, her measured response that 'my look has gradually turned for the better' went down well with people in Hong Kong. They saw the territory's first female transport chief had a sense of humour. But as the transport novice soon learned, managing Hong Kong's traffic to ensure a smooth ride for 460,000 buses, minibuses, trams, trucks, vans and private cars, plus the millions of passengers and tonnes of goods they carry, is no laughing matter. Hardly had she settled into her new job than bad weather caused a large boulder to fall down the hillside next to the Tuen Mun Highway and on to a passing van last month. It killed the driver and injured a passenger. For the sake of safety, engineers said the Kowloon-bound lanes of the major trunk road between Tuen Mun and Tsuen Wan had to be closed for two weeks to stabilise the slopes. The public outcry was immediate and vociferous. Mrs Yam found herself and her colleagues savagely abused by irate district board members, drivers and residents who felt shortchanged by the government's poor planning. Worse, on the first day the road was closed, she was criticised for not appearing personally in Tuen Mun - or in the media - to take responsibility for the chaos which gripped the northwestern New Territories. The truth was, as Mrs Yam recalled, that was also the first day City Bus took over the operation of a number of bus routes from China Motor Bus. As experience suggested City Bus might encounter teething problems, she had spent the morning seeing how things worked out. Then, she went to Tuen Mun to assess traffic conditions and to see for herself how the ferries coped with extra demand. But as she tried to reach Yuen Long, her car became one of thousands caught in traffic. Since 'Transport chief stuck in traffic' was the last headline she wanted to see splashed across newspaper front pages, she decided to be coy about her plight. Throughout the day, she was in constant contact with colleagues by mobile phone. When she managed to reach Sheung Shui, some four hours after setting off from Tuen Mun, she decided to do the smart thing by leaving her car and taking the train to Mongkok. She then went up to the Transport Department's Kowloon office to chair a series of emergency meetings to cope with one of Hong Kong's most serious traffic jams. One lesson she learned from the Tuen Mun fiasco was that 'in managing traffic, you're dealing with human behaviour'. During the partial closure of the Tuen Mun Highway, one Kowloon-bound lane was reserved for the use of buses and coaches. 'We saw from a helicopter that it was quite a waste and so we decided to open the road to container trucks from 10 am after the rush hours,' she said. 'But the trucks started queueing up at 9 am, blocking access to the road and causing congestion in the area. 'It's interesting because it shows you a great deal about human behaviour. It shows you must give people time to adapt [to new traffic arrangements] and you can't easily change the whole system.' Pointing to her department's wide ranging portfolio, which includes vehicle licensing; conducting driving tests; checking the road worthiness of vehicles; managing tunnels; maintaining traffic lights; monitoring bus , tram, mini-bus and ferry services, managing road use and transport planning, Mrs Yam said transport commissioner was one of the most interesting jobs she had had. 'I can understand why there is so much public attention on me. 'Transport is so closely related to people's daily lives,' she said. 'There are a hundred things people can complain to us about, which explains how difficult our job is. 'The burden is very heavy. 'I can't say it's something that repels me, but it's something that I've to get used to. 'I'm a career civil servant. I really believe in service. Public service to me is a commitment. 'I understand that people's moods will be better if traffic is smooth when they set out in the morning. 'Hong Kong has one of the best road systems. 'But motorists can feel very frustrated depending on the hours of the day they are on the road.' Although she is Hong Kong's first woman transport chief, Mrs Yam down played the significance of those who expect her to bring a feminine touch to the job. 'I was the first woman to become a city district officer in 1970, which was something people talked about at a time when women were paid only 75 per cent of men's salary,' she said. 'By the time I became the first woman chief of the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority in 1989, people no longer talked much about it.' Yet, Mrs Yam recalled that TELA's staff were curious about how she would deal with such sensitive issues as pornography. As part of her induction, she was shown a series of censored footage of scenes not considered suitable for screening under the Category III classification. '[The late chief censor] Pierre Lebrun described in the most dispassionate way why certain scenes were excised,' said Mrs Yam. 'All the projectionists were men and I knew they were watching my reaction to see if I would blush. 'From time to time, I asked for certain scenes to be re-screened so I could see them more closely. 'I hoped it showed them I was just doing the job to the best of my ability. 'It's the individual that counts, not gender.' Looking ahead, Mrs Yam sees a heavy workload awaiting her. City Bus's franchise is up for renewal next year and Kowloon Motor Bus's by 1997. Public transport for the new airport at Chek Lap Kok has to be put in place, an electronic road pricing scheme tested, and cross-border infrastructure planning co-ordinated with the mainland. Then there is the third Comprehensive Transport Study to be launched. Although she can appear a rather tense bureaucrat on television as she defends her department's traffic management schemes, Mrs Yam is, to her staff, an affable boss who always wears a disarming smile. It is not difficult to find her. Just step into the headquarters of the Transport Department on the 41st floor of Immigration Tower in Wan Chai. Then look for a petite, five-foot tall woman cracking jokes with men and women bigger in height than her, but not, perhaps, in stature.