Private-car ownership in Hong Kong closely resembles firearm possession in the United States; very few people have a real and compelling need for it but vast numbers of (mostly self-serving) excuses can be found to justify the want. And much like serious discussions on gun control in America, proposals for effective curbs on car ownership in a small place like Hong Kong are never permitted to go anywhere for political reasons.
The government response to spiralling vehicle numbers, aided and abetted by the politically powerful road transport lobby and its “rotten borough” functional constituencies, is simple; build more roads to accommodate ever more cars. This situation, in turn, massively benefits the (mostly privately held) construction and building-material companies that directly profit from “merry go round” government tendering process. Everyone close to the feeding trough wins; the perennial losers – as ever – are Hong Kong’s hapless pedestrian majority, annually more choked by roadside vehicle fumes.
Vehicles with internal combustion engines first arrived in Hong Kong between 1903 and 1905, and became popular as technology rapidly improved around 1910. Private-car numbers steadily grew just before the first world war and road capacity expanded in tandem. The economic boom of the “roaring twenties” created more affluence, thus more demand for private cars and motor vehicles in general, which was met by British and American manufacturers and the increasing number of vehicles they shipped to the Far East. By the 1930s, private cars were an established fact of life in Hong Kong – but only for the affluent. Possession of a car – and even better, a personal driver – became a key status marker.
For the vast majority, car ownership – then as now – was out of the question for economic reasons. Until the '50s, travelling by car was a novelty for most, and private-car hire for weddings and funerals remained a significant demonstration of status. Taxi companies became profitable enterprises from this time, and several local business fortunes – such as that of Hopewell Holdings’ Gordon Wu Ying-sheung – were seeded in the hire-car trade.
Car ownership exponentially expanded with rising local affluence in the '60s and '70s, and since 2013, there have been more than 500,000 private cars on our roads.
Among today’s wealthy, multiple-car ownership is the norm; legions of people-carriers deployed to shuttle idle wives to and from competitive shopping matches, and their overscheduled children between school and extracurricular activities, clog up the city’s streets. High-powered sports cars provide testosterone additives and mating display substitutes for the modern age. The popularity of these expensive toys proves that, in spite of technical advances, many local males (and more than a few females) have not fundamentally progressed from the use of feathers, skins and shells: extravagant status markers/colourful mating rituals in evidence from the Papua New Guinea highlands to the plains of Africa.
For most people, the motor car remains a luxury. Hong Kong has one of the most advanced, safe, and reliable systems of public transport anywhere in the world; mini- and full-sized buses, trains, trams, the MTR, ferries – near-seamless transit links ensure few journeys are complicated. Nevertheless, plenty of Hong Kong people will not chance being seen in any form of public conveyance other than a taxi. And even then, for some, a cab is the absolute last resort.
Slaves to status, many prefer to be stuck in traffic in a private car rather than risk being spotted using Hong Kong’s world-renowned public transport.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong