Why are Hong Kong’s MTR stations different colours?

By Ben Pang
  • The functional purpose of the colours is integrated so seamlessly you probably haven’t even noticed it
  • Central is red for a reason, and why Prince Edward is purple might surprise you
By Ben Pang |

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Choi Hung, one of Hong Kong's brightest stations!

Mong Kok is red, Admiralty is bright blue, and everyone recognises the rainbow-coloured walls of Choi Hung. Hong Kong is a city full of colours, and nowhere is more colourful than underground. But why does each MTR station have its own colour, and what do they mean? Young Post spoke to MTR Corporation chief architect Andrew Mead to find out.

The first explanation for the colours is to do with balance. Deep underground, there are no windows, and everything is dark and gloomy. Colours are associated with beauty and brightness, and in the depths of the MTR stations, it’s the colours that give each station its own form of sunlight.

But Mead explains that the colours are also functional as they help differentiate the stations, and give each an identity. It’s a useful way for designers to give the station an identity, because it’s not like when you’re travelling on a bus or a car and can look out for landmarks around you.

Which colour is your favourite? Photo: MTR Corporation Limited

Mead says the stations are different colours because "back in the 1970s, there was still a signifcant problem of literacy. If you can't read, either English or Chinese, how would you recognise a station?" He said the colours had been deliberately planned to help people navigate the system.

For more important stations, Mead says they reserved different ranges of a sharp red. The bold colour in Tsuen Wan, Mong Kok or Central stations lets passengers know that they are at interchange or final stations.

When developing a palette of colours, Mead makes sure they avoid using the same colour in successive stations. For instance, blue is used at Mei Foo station as it stands in sharp contrast to the red stations of Lai King and Lai Chi Kok.

However, it takes a bit of lateral thinking to make sense of the colour use in some stations. A lot of the station colours were derived from the Chinese names for the places. For example, the rainbow colours in Choi Hung station are a vivid example of the literal translation from Cantonese, as “choi hung” means rainbow. Yellow is used at Wong Tai Sin station as it the word “wong” means yellow. Lai Chi Kok station is mainly in red as “lai chi” means lychees. Prince Edward station is purple because the colour is commonly associated with royalty in western culture.

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Architects also creatively use a variety of colours to convey the meaning of the place. Diamond Hill station is mainly black, but a beautifully crafted mosaic was created with the use of a few white bricks. The purpose of this design is to try to produce the same sparkling effect as a diamond when you see it from different angles.

As well as the meanings of the places, the surrounding environment is also taken into consideration. “Whampoa station is blue because it was closer to the water. Ho Man Tin station is green because it’s a part of the hill, and that’s really how that colour is chosen. Nothing’s really more sophisticated than that, and this makes it distinctive,” Mead said.

Given that every station has its own distinct colouring, you might be wondering why the Airport Express Line is grey. This is all to do with creating an extension of the airport, Mead explains. Norman Foster, the architect behind the airport, and the HSBC building in Central, is not known for his use of colour. In fact, in the industry, Mead says architects often refer to “Foster grey” because this is his preferred shade for the majority of his projects.

So MTR architects decided to capitalise on this distinct colouring. “The Airport Express, Kowloon and Hong Kong stations are all the same grey,” Mead says. “As soon as you go to Kowloon station, as soon as you go to Hong Kong station, you feel like you are at the airport. It’s the extension of the airport from Lantau into the city.”

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But one thing that the Airport Express Line did add was the introduction of art works, and that was where the colours came in. The architects integrated the art in the station in a sophisticated manner, and this is where colour and functionality come together.

Mead uses artist Gaylord Chan’s artwork of a rocket in the space between Hong Kong station and Central as an example. He says the piece is all about the movement of people, and people passing by at speed, which reflects the transit area it is in. Since then, Mead says there has been an amazing collection of artworks that have been retrofitted into existing stations.

“These are all curated. It’s not just about picking a nice picture, it’s about making sure it resonates with the people going through,” he adds.

Ocean Park MTR station. Photo: MTR Corporation Limited

And Mead says for the newer stations, they are starting to integrate art and colour in a much more sophisticated way.

For the station at Ocean Park, for example, different shades of blue are being used because they represent the theme park. There is also an art sculpture resembling the movement of a school of fish. There is dual symbolism in this: it symbolises the sea, and the creatures at Ocean Park, but it is also functional, as by following the movement of the fish, people can find the way to the exit or the platform, Mead says.

More than just a mode of transport, functional art work, meaningful colours and the surrounding environment are all integrated so seamlessly on the MTR that you’d be forgiven for not even noticing them

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