Hong Kong culture

So Hong Kong: why rush hour on the MTR is a metaphor for life in our city

The competition for seats, jostling for position, the mavericks who take direction signs as merely a suggestion, the efficiently crammed coaches – this is laissez-faire Hong Kong in motion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 3:41pm

Like most Hongkongers, I have a love/hate relationship with the MTR. If I’m not in a hurry, taking a tram, ferry or bus (mini or otherwise) is preferable, and you get a view. If I am in a rush, taxis are still mostly reliable (despite the controversy of drivers overcharging, and the used tissues in the handle).

Still, the MTR meets much of my transport needs. I take it because it is fast, efficient and, if a luggage-toting tourist blocks my path to the train as the dot-dot-dot sounds to close the door, I know another one is coming in a couple of minutes.

On the other hand, the Admiralty platform during rush hour is probably one level of hell above having flesh torn off your skin and hot pokers stuck into your eyeballs. The stifling mass of humanity, lack of civility and aggressive grannies refusing to let you off before pushing their way onto the train all conspire to cause rider rage.

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I try to be philosophical, though, when squished in next to a sweaty guy playing Candy Crush at full volume. After all, the MTR is a microcosm of Hong Kong society. As a city, we are all about being economical and efficient, so it makes sense to pack as many of us into as small a space as possible.

Similarly, everyone elbowing each other to get on the escalator is normal local behaviour in the context of social competition. If I manage to butt in front of you it’s just business, nothing personal. After all, everyone is in a hurry – and everyone wants a seat.

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People traffic in the MTR is a perfect metaphor for our free-market interaction. It’s laissez-faire in motion when a guy uses the less crowded down side of the stairs to go up. In locals’ eyes, that’s being a maverick, thinking outside the box to beat everyone else to the front of the line.

Technically, he is not breaking any rule, he’s gaming the system. The arrows pointing in the opposite direction are merely a suggestion. It’s no different to a CEO skirting accounting guidelines to boost the bottom line.

While it’s true that taking the MTR is sometimes unpleasant, in general it’s still a pretty good system. Would you prefer London’s rusty, creaking Underground or the anarchy of taxis and buses in any number of less developed Southeast Asian cities?

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As often as there are selfish jerks too nose-deep in their stock-trading mobile apps to give up a seat to a pregnant woman, I often see a lot of kindness – people guiding blind passengers, strangers engaging over a cute baby, or assisting lost tourists to change trains.

Personally, I think what gets people mad is not the rude MTR riders but greedy MTR corporate weasels. It’s simply bad PR when they raise fares every year and justify it by talking about fiscal responsibility to shareholders. That’s a recipe for resentment, especially when the whole city knows they make a bundle with malls and residential towers above every other station. This is why people are peeved when a train is delayed by more than 30 seconds. Mind that gap, won’t you.


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