Blights of passage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


I'm eight months pregnant with a long MTR journey ahead of me.

The trains are crowded; people are packed into the carriages; everyone is trying to survive another Hong Kong rush hour. No one offers me a seat. Preoccupied with phones, iPods and magazines, no one so much as blinks at the heavily pregnant woman directing evil glances at them in an attempt to shame them out of their seats. Eventually, I leave the train, tired and angry, telling myself there cannot be anything worse than travelling on public transport when pregnant.

But I am wrong - it's actually worse when you have a child or children in tow. If you hope to get a seat on any form of public transport just because you have a baby strapped to your chest, think again.

Combine that with the pushing and shoving that is part and parcel of any MTR journey, and passengers who ignore your baby stroller, and those able-bodied people who could use the escalator but for whatever reason choose to fill up the lift so you and your stroller have to wait for the next one, and it doesn't make for an easy journey.

Negotiating public transport in Hong Kong as a family of one or more children is often an unpleasant experience. At times it is almost a nightmare.

As any parent or helper who has had to board a bus with a baby in one arm and a stroller to fold with the other will know: throw in an extra child or shopping bags and it can be impossible.

It is tempting, sometimes, to hand your baby to the bus driver who sits there watching you struggle to board his bus.

We have been through various strollers since our eldest was born five years ago and have discarded many along the way, simply because they did not stand up to the demands of Hong Kong's public transport systems.

Now if I cannot fold it easily with one hand and it isn't as lightweight as possible without being flimsy, then forget it. And as for a double stroller, that is reserved for the luxury of our outlying island home, where everything is within 15 minutes' walking distance.

With all the stresses involved in travelling with young children on the MTR or buses, it is tempting to just jump into a taxi any time we need to get anywhere. They are reasonably priced and can be found everywhere. And you might even get a taxi driver who is willing to get out of his seat and help you put your stroller in the back of his cab.

However, travelling in taxis in Hong Kong with young children raises the problem of car seats - or lack of them. There is no legislation in Hong Kong concerning how children should travel in a car or taxi. There is no law requiring the use of car seats, as there is in most developed countries. This makes catching a taxi easy, because there is none of the hassle of dragging car seats around with you.

But it does raise the issue of child safety. Most taxi rides in Hong Kong are short, but safety is still a concern. For babies under one year, it is possible to use a stroller/car seat combination. But the kids soon outgrow them.

Which brings us to the issue of minibuses. We all know how easily they would crumple on impact in any serious traffic accident, and yet, as a mode of public transport - fast, convenient and cheap - they can't be beaten. My five- and three-year-olds love minibuses, even though they have travelled on them only a handful of times, and in particular the green one that runs from the Central ferry piers to Queen Mary Hospital. It is a fast and exhilarating way to travel, especially as the minibus speeds its way around the twists and turns of Mount Davis Road. It becomes a case of hang on tight and pray. But it doesn't terrify my Hong Kong-born children quite as much as it terrifies me.

My children also love the trams that criss-cross Hong Kong Island. Most trips to Central quickly turn into a 'spot the tram' competition. An hour or two spent at the top of a tram is a great activity for young children, and cheap, too. A great journey is from the terminus in Kennedy Town to the terminus in Happy Valley, and it's a fantastic way to explore the sights and sounds of our busy city.

Sometimes the best option with children is just to walk. Strap them into the stroller and off we go. Only not so fast, because there are stairs everywhere. Most MTR exits are accessible only by stairs, as I learned in Prince Edward last week. Lifts are hard to find and not at every exit. Struggle on the stairs with a child in a stroller and someone may help you, if you are lucky. Just walking from the Central ferry piers to Queen's Road Central, a 15-minute journey, involves several flights of stairs.

Living as my family and I do on an island where cars are not permitted, we are at the mercy of Hong Kong's public transport whenever we need to leave our island home. Hong Kong has an amazing network of trains, buses and ferries that is incredibly clean, reliable and cheap. It is the envy of countries around the world.

However, it helps to plan any journey with children in advance, so as to explore all the best options and the least stressful ones.

And make sure the Octopus cards are loaded. We are now a family of four Octopus cardholders, and sometimes just the stress of keeping all of them loaded and preventing them from getting lost is enough to make us stay at home.

Rebecca Tomasis is a mother of three and was co-winner of the inaugural Proverse Prize for unpublished writers