The Peak Tram - 125 years of ups and downs

The Peak Tram has become a true Hong Kong icon since it first creaked up the hill from Garden Road, witnessing and reflecting changing times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:16pm

Domestic workers with chickens in one hand and bags of vegetables in the other used to crowd onto the Peak Tram, but dared not sit down until they were sure the governor wasn't there.

Cramming aboard the tram hasn't changed much, but almost everything else about the oldest funicular railway in Asia has been transformed since it first trundled up the hill more than a century ago.

The tramway, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, served both workers and affluent residents on the Peak and ended an era in which people were carried uphill on sedan chairs, horses and donkeys.

Climbing the steep slopes of Victoria Peak, the tramway has witnessed huge changes in Hong Kong, from the narrowing harbour and the skyward thrust of buildings to the transformed social status of Chinese people in th city.

The tram itself has also been transformed. Following its humble beginnings in a small terminus on Garden Road serving British businessmen in hats and neat suits and Chinese workers carrying baskets, the tram now serves six million people each year from all over the world.

While anyone who reaches the head of the often long queue can take any seat these days, that wasn't the case a century ago.

A 30-seat tram car was divided into three classes and the first two seats were reserved for the governor, said May Tsang Ying-mei, general manager of Peak Tramways. There was a brass plaque behind those two seats reminding passengers of the rule.

"Other passengers could sit down only if the governor had not arrived two minutes before the tram left," Tsang said.

The governor's summer house, Mountain Lodge, was on the Peak at the time.

The first generation of peak tram cars had no doors. A first-class ticket cost 30 cents. A second-class ride cost 20 cents and third class 10 cents. The return trip was half the price. Now a round-trip ticket costs HK$40, more than 100 times in nominal terms what it did then.

The special seats for the governor were scrapped in the second generation of tram cars, introduced in 1926. Now the cars are in their fifth generation and have been in use for 24 years.

From 1904 to 1947, only Caucasians could live on the Peak unless the governor granted an exception, accounting for the passenger mix of wealthy foreigners and their workers, Tsang said.

There were tourists back then, too; the tram was the brainchild of Scottish hotel owner Alexander Findlay Smith. His Peak Hotel, opened eight years before the tram, burned down in 1938.

Construction of the tramway started about 1883, and it was likely that the engineers experienced many difficulties because of the steep slope, she said.

The 1.4km railway rises from 28 metres above sea level to 396 metres, and the steepest gradient is 27 degrees. The route has not changed since its first day of operation on May 30, 1888.

During the Japanese occupation of 1941-45, the tramway was used to carry arms to the barracks on the Peak.

"At that time, the engineers were forced to operate the tram for that purpose," Tsang said.

After the war, the tram soon returned to normal operation, but memories remained. Tsang said bomb fragments were found under the main base plate of the two haulage drums.

In its first year of operation, the Peak Tram carried 150,000 passengers, equivalent to 80 per cent of Hong Kong's population at the time. The figure had grown to 3.1 million by 1990.

Tsang said the number continued to rise until 2003, when Sars scared people off public transport, but that it soon regained its momentum, and carried more than 5.9 million passengers last year.

Tsang said most passengers nowadays were mainland tourists, but that some residents and workers bought monthly passes for HK$500.

The operator plans to upgrade the trams and terminals soon, she said.

"On some days, there are a lot of people queuing up for the tram, and we hope they won't need to queue in an open area in the future."

The first generation of trams was powered by coal-fired steam and the cars were made of wood, but from the second generation onwards, they were electricity driven. More seats were added over the years with the number rising from 30 in 1888 to 120 nowadays. Tsang said the company was considering increasing the number of seats further.

Fan Kwok-chu, 59, who has worked for the tramway for 34 years, said that in the past, tram drivers needed to signal workers in the engine room to control the car. Now the system was electronic and the driver had more control, he said.

Fan is now a senior inspector on the Tram, but he first worked as a ticket seller after closing his electrical appliance shop, thinking the job would be only temporary.

"I thought I wouldn't be able to get used to the job, because I was more used to working according to my own schedule in the shop," he said.

But he soon discovered something more about the tram job - foreign currency collection.

"Foreign passengers would sometimes hand the wrong coins to me, and I found them pretty. That's why I started collecting foreign currencies," he said. "The passengers were very nice. I would chat with them and sometimes we would exchange coins."

He said that in the 1980s, most tourists were from Europe and the United States.

"They had high spending power and were very well educated. It was easy to keep order," he said.

The number of passengers from Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Japan started to grow in the 1990s, and in recent years, mainland tourists have been the tram's biggest customers.

"Because of differences in culture, sometimes there have been clashes," he said.

Peak Tram drivers now need to be able to conduct simple communication in English and Putonghua.

Having suffered polio in his childhood, Fan still has difficulty walking. He said that his disability was part of the reason he had started his electrical appliance shop.

"It wasn't that easy to find a job with my leg condition at that time," he said.

Fan said he had driven a tram carrying former governor David Wilson on the day the fifth generation of cars started operating, and that he had also arranged tours for astronauts from the mainland.