Tramlines are heartlines

By Chris Lau

The tram celebrates its 110th birthday this year.This romantic transport is vital to Hong Kong's past and present, and should be preserved

By Chris Lau |

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Chang Wen (left) and Eric Lee, curator of the Hong Kong Trams Station at The Peak Galleria

As a baby, when Eric Lee Tsun-lung was giving his mother a hard time, she knew just how to soothe him. She would carry him down the street to hear one specific sound - ding ding.

The magical sound of a tram bell never failed to tame the agitated child. Even today, he remembers that as soon as the "ding-ding" sounded, "I would stop crying straight away. I think I was drawn to the colourful adverts on the sides of the trams."

Then, in secondary school, when he got access to the internet, he used it to research trams. He discovered the information was scattered all over the internet and that's when he decided to put it all in one place.

"I decided to start an online forum, to give the wonderful facts about trams a home, and a place where they could be celebrated."

Lee became an avid tram enthusiast and, in 2006, founded the fan club Hong Kong Trams which now has hundreds of members.

This year is a special one for the group - it marks the tram's 110th anniversary in Hong Kong, and a big celebration is planned.

At the Sheung Wan tram depot, a trio of films will be projected onto the side of a tram, by Hong Kong Tramways.

Three titles were hand-picked by the Film Culture Centre (FCC), and show the changing role trams played through the years for Hongkongers. The first movie, Typhoon Signal 10, screened last month. Coming up are Nomad and Crossing Hennessy, which will be screened on April 12 and May 10, respectively.

Chang Wen, board member of the FCC, says the films depict the changing roles of trams in the city. The electric trams first came into operation in 1904, with regular services between Shau Kei Wan and Kennedy town.

"Typhoon Signal 10 shows how important the trams were for getting around town in the 50s," says Chang. "In the days before people had cars, trams were the heartbeat of Hong Kong Island, carrying up to 400,000 passengers a day. They remained popular until the MTR was launched in 1979.

After that, their role changed dramatically. This is reflected in Nomad, starring 80s heartthrob Leslie Cheung.

"In this movie, trams become a shelter for delinquent teenage couples … It's about the new generation who suffered an identity crisis, juxtaposed with the fading role of trams as a less significant form of transport," Chang says.

Crossing Hennessy is set in the 90s, when Chang says trams were no longer everyday transport, but became a sort of retro romantic hangout for love birds.

"Even couples from the New Territories would come here for a ride. Basically, it became a symbol of love," she says.

For Lee, who grew up in Sai Wan Ho, trams have always been a vital part of the city's landscape. His club wants to raise public awareness about the transport network. Sometimes the club invites former tram staff to give insightful talks about its history - they often reveal unusual facts about the tramways.

Did you know that all trams stop outside the Hong Kong Funeral Home, in North Point, regardless of whether or not there are passengers waiting?

"At one of the talks, a former driver told the crowd that trams would stop to pay respect to spiritual beings," Lee says.

Here's another lesser-known fact: not only does Hong Kong boast one of the oldest tram systems in the world, it's the only city that still uses double-decker trams.

"The more I look into it, the more I realise trams are an indispensable part of Hong Kong's history," says Lee says.