Recently I had to travel to Hong Kong to meet with the publisher of a textbook I’m writing. As the schedule worked out, I had some time to do a little sight seeing in the evening. Problem is, Hong Kong is very expensive. But a colleague told me about an economical and interesting way to take in a lot of the island-by riding the tram.

 

The trams are Hong Kong’s trolleys or cable cars. They’re electric powered and connected by wire to the power source above. Their line of tracks is fairly extensive. So if you stay on for the whole route, you can see about half of the island. Best of all, the price is only 2.3 Hong Kong dollars, or around 40 cents in American money.

 

The style of the vehicle is double-decker and from my second floor seat I got a very enlightening view of Hong Kong at night. It’s almost as if I were watching the city in secret with the rest of the world unaware of me. When you go on a tour, you either have people gawking at you or vendors trying to cash in on the foreign dollars. Here, I could watch without being bothered. It was definitely a great opportunity for people watching and getting a feel for the city without a tour guide’s often prepared script or an agenda of taking you somewhere to purchase items. One thing I consistently noticed-the large number of people playing around with their cell phones. Thank God for the hand- held friend to relieve boredom. What did we do before mobile phones came along?

Hong Kong is a very modern city but the first thing I was struck by was the enormous size of many old style neon signs. In many respects they were reminiscent of downtown Buffalo in its retail glory days. Except of course these signs were in Chinese. The night time glowing effect of Chinese messages is fascinating. It also reflects the blending of old and new Hong Kong.

 

Some signs are strictly in Chinese…others combine English with the Chinese. When I see some of the English names of businesses I wonder if a poor translation is involved or if they just purchased some random sign in English because the price was good. I suspect that the person who put up their sign for the “So So Salon” did not comprehend they were saying their hair craftsmanship was mediocre! On the other hand, a sign for the “Worthy Dispensary” ( a pharmacy) gives a more positive impression. Even Honeymoon Dessert has a pleasant feel to it. Some of the non-English signs also include a phone number. I guess they figure if the English speaking customers are really interested in their business they’ll have a Chinese friend translate what they’re all about as well as make the phone call for them.

 

Some people don’t like the trams since they do not offer the amenities like air conditioning and cushioned seats. Plus, some of the motions the cars make in their travel are pretty shaky. At times, they have a feel of a rattling roller coaster. The tram system dates back to 1904. Sadly, the Hong Kong authorities are considering replacing the double-decker trams. But some double-deckers will be kept mainly for their old-school charm as well as for the tourists.

One thing was quite evidente from my upper level “perch” on the tram…there’s definitely an energy level to Hong Kong. It feels like there’s something going on even in the everyday activities of the island. It extends from the simple sidewalk cafes to the more elegant restaurants…from the small shops to the major stores…and continues with the people hurrying along. There’s electricity even in people going about their daily business. Perhaps because their ways are different than what we Americans are used to. That’s probably why Hong Kong is consistently one of the 12 most visited cities each year according to several travel web sites.

The main question now concerns Hong Kong’s future. Originally it was a British colony but was returned to China in 1997. Since that time the city has operated under the “one country, two systems” theory. That means the Chinese did not make any drastic changes, things basically stayed the same. The Party was smart enough not to ruin a good thing. But this year the island elected its first Communist as its new chief executive. Political observers wonder just what impact that will have on the way Hong Kong operates in the future.