Hong Kong tram world’s first with a private club on board, offering space to hire for arts events

Circus Tram has three cabins that will be used for artistic salons, concerts, debates and private functions. It has a toilet and there is no staircase at the back to maximise space

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 1:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 7:44pm

The world’s first private members’ club inside a working tram will open in Hong Kong this month. The roving social and arts venue on tracks aims to turn the historic and much-loved mode of transport into a cultural asset and a platform for local creative talent.

The bespoke Circus Tram, as it has been christened, will start travelling between Western Market and North Point on a permanent basis from September 24.

Ding ding! Hong Kong’s 114-year-old tram system gets a revamp

Only members are allowed on board, and membership is limited to 108 people per year and costs HK$20,000 (US$2,550) up front, which can be used as credit later.

You’ll spot it easily. The wooden frame structure of the tram is exposed since it doesn’t carry any advertising panels like ordinary trams. There is no staircase at the back to maximise space, and there are extras you don’t find on other trams such as a lavatory and three cabins that will be used for artistic salons, concerts, debates and private functions.

The jazzed-up version of a party tram is named after Circus, a two-year-old cultural start-up founded by architects Rex Lau and Alvin Yip. The start-up will operate the tram – which was built from scratch – with help from Hong Kong Tramways.

The cabins built into the two-metre-wide carriage feel surprisingly roomy. They all have padded bench seats along the windows and small but sturdy tables in the aisle. In terms of style (each room has a distinct look), think trendy restaurant with retro details.

There are plans for Circus Tram to host a wide variety of events for members: poet Henrik Hoeg and fortune-teller Leung Siu-chung will each give very different kinds of readings; group discussions about the challenges facing Hong Kong will be held in the appropriately named “Chatham House” room (where the Chatham House Rule on non-disclosure of speakers’ identity applies); architecture tours will be hosted in “The Freudians”, the smallest of the three rooms and the one that leads to the upstairs front balcony; and fine dining will be offered in “Darwin’s Garden”, decked out with floral soft furnishing and pot plants.

Circus has also lined up classical and jazz musicians to perform in what must be Hong Kong’s smallest concert venue – the space is limited to an audience of eight. There are plans for collaborations with Soho House, the global chain of upmarket members’ clubs targeting individuals in the arts and media.

Then and now: following the old tramway on Hong Kong Island

Lau and Yip set up Circus in 2015 to organise events and consult businesses and governments on cultural, urban, and social innovations. Yip tested out the tram idea in 2013 when he arranged for four trams to be converted to like the Circus Tram for the deTour design festival (albeit for two weeks only).

He says the arrangement with Hong Kong Tramways is an experiment in making independent cultural projects financially sustainable on a long-term basis. He wouldn’t say how much it cost to build the tram, but pointed out that it was in the millions, with the cost split between the two parties.

Hong Kong trams on track for a smoother (and quieter) ride

More trams may be on the way, Yip says, and he hopes that there will be the capacity in the future to take open bookings from non-members.

The innovation may also be a way to protect Hong Kong’s 114-year-old tram service. Passenger numbers have been on a steady decline since 2009 and a retired town planner has been waging a campaign to have the tramway scrapped. In the last financial year, an average of 172,000 journeys were made on a tram each day, compared to more than 4.8 million on the MTR.

“From a purely utilitarian angle, the 160 trams in service are not critical to Hong Kong. But there has been such strong reaction against the idea of losing it because its value is cultural as well as functional. The Circus Tram is just one way of turning urban assets in Hong Kong into cultural assets more broadly,” Yip says.