Massive, Harmonious Madness


A day spent experiencing HK’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is enough to put any urban-dwelling American to shame.

HK subway stations are massive. Unlike NYC Metro stations that usually only take up one city block with four exits, HK’s subway stations occupy the space of three to four blocks with as many as ten exits. Inside, they are brightly lit, extremely clean, outfitted with dozens of escalators, and don’t smell like urine. Little stores selling snacks ranging from individually-plastic-wrapped pigs in a blanket to HK-style milk tea (奶茶), a beverage made of tea and condensed milk, line MTR subway stations. It’s impossible to fall onto the tracks since a wall of glass extends from the edge of the platform to the station’s ceiling along the entire length of the docking area. Each time a train stops at a station, the doors of its trolleys align almost perfectly with the outer glass doors – which is quite a feat of precision since these trains go pretty darn fast.

MTR train
The train is not made of disconnected trolleys but is, in fact, entirely joined. A desperately needed cooling breeze flows down the interior of the train during travel.

There’s also the convenient no-swipe, just-tap Octopus Card, a simple plastic card on which you can store money to use for subways, buses, and even goods at food stores. (The Hong Kong Hustler tells a funny story about “Octopussy” here.)

Morning and evening rush hours are sights at which to marvel. Torrents of businessmen, working women, students, children, and the occasional tourists pour into subway stations like water bursting forth from a blown dam. Immense masses of jostling flesh occupy almost every square inch of pavement and swarm down every available escalator. But the whole bi-daily affair has its own sense of order and organization. It is a massive, harmonious madness. Controlled chaos in the magnitude of hundreds of thousands. Stationary escalator passengers stand on the right of the stairs to allow a path for those wishing to actively climb or descend. At bus stops, people arrange themselves into near perfectly straight, single-file lines on the side walk. Pedestrians never jaywalk, even when no cars are in sight, but instead always patiently wait for the appearnce of a light, in the form of an ambulating, green stick figure, and the emission of an annoying, hollow, clicking noise from every walk signal’s speakers. During my first few days in HK, I did not patiently wait for the green ambulating stick figure’s apparition, but I later decided to subscribe fully to the “when in Rome” credo because by witnessing other ex-pats/tourists flagrantly jaywalk, I realized how much I looked like a deuche bag.

The only other form of transportation I take regularly to work is the public light bus, or minibus. What these gypsy-caravan-sized buses lack in seating capacity (they can only carry sixteen passengers), they make up in acceleration and nimbleness.

gypsy caravan
A gypsy caravan, or vardo, for comparison.

The 25M minibus has a stop right in front of the NTT (my pad) and delivers me conveniently to the Kowloon Tong MTR station. Wikipedia tells me most of the minibuses are Toyota Coasters running on liquified petroleum gas (LPG), which is cheaper and relatively environmentally friendly. I suspect minibus drivers are paid based on how many passengers they transport. So more passengers and faster driving equals more money. Less passengers and lots of red lights means less moola. Today, my 25M driver got delayed behind traffic at a red light for nearly five minutes. I had nowhere to be, and even I was frustrated by the entire ordeal. When the light turned green and a space between a double-decker and a sedan opened up, the driver pounced on it. I got to experience the awesome acceleratory capabilities of this automobile in pedal-to-the-metal mode. The minibus wove in and out of narrow lanes and through moving cars while under the driver’s deft control.

Passing around tight corners, I swear I could feel the wheels of the bus on one side slightly lift off the asphalt, going round and round all through the town. Other passengers didn’t seem to think anything was out of the ordinary, but I grabbed the handle bar in front of me. I kept thinking, This ride was so worth HK$4.70!“ An adrenaline-boosting ride like this was perfect for waking me up after a full day’s work. (But in the back of my mind, I’m also reminded of the recent news story of recklessly fast minibus drivers killing two women in Mong Kok.)

Minibus drivers will not stop at bus stations unless there are people waiting there or passengers yell out to them en route. I don’t know the Cantonese words for “stop the bus” (it’s at the top of my list of Cantonese phrases to learn, along with “What are you doing later tonight” and “Are you a Triad member?”), and it didn’t look like anybody was waiting for the NTT stop. Luckily, a lady called for the driver to stop at Baptist University. Even though this stop is several minutes away from NTT, I decided it was better to get off and walk instead of taking my chances with such a frenzied driver. Half-expecting the driver to prematurely close the door, I rushed towards the exit. The ceiling is lower than I thought it was, and my head made a loud thud against the underside of the door as I stumbled out.