KMB's 80-year bus journey

KMB has been keeping the people of Kowloon and the New Territories on the move for decades. A new book captures the history of the firm

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 4:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:16pm

As the villages and rice fields that had covered Kowloon for aeons made way for buildings along the first three roads built on the peninsula - Nathan Road, Canton Road and the southern part of Shanghai Street - the need emerged for public transport to serve the booming population.

In the 20th century, a solution arrived in the form of buses, which began to take their place alongside the rickshaws on the newly built roads.

Among the early motor operators was Kowloon Motor Bus, founded by Lui Leung in 1921. It had nine vehicles, operating along two routes - from Tsim Sha Tsui pier to Sham Shui Po and from Nathan Road to Hung Hom.

Some 12 years later, the company took advantage of the government's decision to replace the system of independent bus operators with a franchised network.

Now, 80 years after KMB won the franchise for Kowloon and the New Territories, historian Ko Tim-keung has captured the history of the company in a new book, 80 Years With KMB - serving up some surprising details.

Few Hongkongers know that double-decker buses were not used in Kowloon before the Japanese invasion as they were banned from Nathan Road to protect the trees. Ko writes that the big trees lining Nathan Road were popular with tourists, and the government was proud of its effort to make the city greener.

"If KMB double-decker buses were to run on Nathan Road or other major links, it was unavoidable that many trees on the roadside would be felled. That was something that the government did not hope to see," he writes.

But during the war, many trees were felled to provide cheap fuel, so the restriction was lifted in the post-war years and the company bought double-decker buses to meet growing demand.

Ko said bus services remained normal on the morning of December 8, 1941, when the airport at Kai Tak and Sham Shui Po barracks were attacked by the Japanese army. Indeed it was bus passengers from Kowloon City and Sham Shui Po who spread word of the attack. Bus services ceased that afternoon.

Many buses were damaged during the war, so when the Japanese army surrendered in 1945, only six buses could be used for public transport. The company instead modified trucks to serve some bus routes.

As the city continued to develop, the demand for bus services continued to grow. But the company faced another challenge in 1967, when riots broke out.

Many drivers left their jobs as they were often targets for attacks by striking leftists. Some buses were damaged, and services had to be ceased on some routes. That gave an opportunity to operators of small, nine-seater vehicles which evolved into today's minibus services.

It was about that time that Leung Yat-fan, now 64, and Lo Lai-fong, now 75, joined the company. Lo was in the first batch of 22 female bus conductors recruited in 1967, when the company faced a staff shortage due to the strike.

She was 29 years old at that time, married with children, and applied for the job because she thought it would be "fun". She was paid HK$400 a month in the beginning, the same rate as the men, at a time when a bowl of wonton noodles cost 30 cents. "Only a few people would skip buying a ticket," she said. "But in the morning, sometimes there were so many people that I had to block them from getting onto the bus by holding the gate closed with my feet." She later took on other jobs for the company before retiring in 2003.

Leung recalled that when a bus was crowded, a conductor would sometimes jump off at the back gate and run to board the slow-moving bus again from the front gate, so he could make sure every passenger had paid.

He was later promoted to inspector: checking passengers' tickets and handling other issues, such as conflicts with passengers and traffic accidents related to the buses. He went on to become chief inspector and retired four years ago.

Leung said he took the job as bus conductor job because he found his previous career as a studio photographer boring. "I wanted to do something that required going out."

KMB's buses have long played a role in the life of Edmond Ho Tat-man. Today, he serves as the company's managing director. As a child in the New Territories, Ho would grab a bus to school.

"At that time, there were more people than [spaces on] buses, so it was considered lucky if you could squeeze onto a bus," he said. "But as a child, I didn't really care. If I couldn't get onto a bus, I would get some snacks on the streets while waiting."

These days, he still uses his own company's services and those of other bus companies when he goes out with his friends to Hung Hom at weekends.

"I don't only take KMB buses," he said. "Sometimes I go on those operated by New World First Bus, too."

Ho first joined KMB in 1998 as finance and administration director. He was promoted to his current post in 2007, succeeding John Chan Cho-chak.

Competition from the railways has been the biggest challenge of his 15 years with the company, Ho says.

"The day MTR's Tseung Kwan O line opened in 2002, our number of passenger trips dropped by 100,000," he said. "We had about 3.1 million passenger trips a day at that time. In the transport industry, if the number drops by a few per cent in a day, that's a very serious issue."

The West Rail and Ma On Shan lines, opened in 2003 and 2004, had a further impact.

"The rate of adjustment of bus routes was not proportional to the decrease in passengers," he said. Passenger numbers now are about 2.6 million per day, down 16 per cent on the 3.1 million recorded in the early years of the last decade. The number of vehicles the company runs fell by 13.6 per cent over the same period, from 4,400 to 3,800.

Ho said the government's policy of putting railways first made it difficult for bus companies.

"But if we could rationalise our routes, we may be able to keep our profit margin," he said.

The company recently completed a plan to rationalise its services in the Northern District and other districts are set to follow.

Ho said the company hoped to start working on routes in Kowloon next year, and he was optimistic that district councillors would support their plans, which would deliver smoother journeys and better air quality.