Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Other Side: Hong Kong

The first instalment of our The Other Side series, courtesy of Mel, is an account of public transit in Hong Kong. The system in Hong Kong, and you'll read below, invloves many different transportation types: ferries, buses, trains, taxis, mini-buses, feet, and bicycling.

Here's a quick run-down of the pros and cons of the system:

: it’s fast, cheap, and generally effective except when it rains and all of Hong Kong fails to operate (kind of like how people from Vancouver react when there’s two centimetres of snow on the ground).

: I miss driving.

And now, in diary-format, is the story by Melanie, "Five days of Hong Kong transport":



  • 9 a.m.: take the subway (on the infamous MTR, Mass Transit Railway) and doot my way from my apartment to Quarry Bay for Chinese class. “Doot” is not a verb – but the sound that your Octopus card makes as you enter and exit the subway stations.
    The MTR is better than any other subway system I’ve been on, in part because they remind you ever four seconds not to eat or drink, which therefore keeps things clean. Well, not that clean. When I first moved here I was on the train and a man sitting down across from me picked his nose and wiped whatever he found on one of the poles. This is not uncommon.
    The Octopus card is a plastic card you load with money and use primarily for various kinds of public transport, but also for parking, shopping at convenience stores, groceries stores, McDonalds, Starbucks, drug stores and for me, going to the gym.
    If you need a primer (or desire a new addiction) to the MTR and the Octopus card, then I suggest this and what else shows your dedication to Hong Kong public transport than this Facebook group? “"DOOT" through life with that Octopus Card”. There are often displays inside the stations, which many people pause to take photographs. Here’s one from January 2007.
  • 12 p.m.: Two hours of Chinese and I take the MTR from Quarry Bay back to my apartment.
  • 1 p.m. : Hurrah for a day off and the beach. Take the bus (with the Octopus card) up to Sai Kung, on the East coast of Hong Kong. It costs about $1Cdn for the trip; the trip takes about half an hour and then we’re in town, trying to find a small boat (called a san-pan) to one of the outlying islands. After much waiting we find a woman who says she’ll take us to the Pak Sha Chau (white sand island) for $38 return and this is absolutely ridiculous. All of the other Canto kids are paying $5 each return for a boat trip so I ask (in Chinese) where this boat is going. Apparently it’s going to a great island with lots of swimming and a good beach. We sign on and there is more discussion about when this boat is going to come pick us up. Success. But the beach sucks, is totally crowded with people eating instant noodles and listening to Cantopop and the water is polluted. Crafty Chinese and their definition of “great”…
  • 5:30 p.m.: Boat back to Sai Kung village, bus back to my apartment, eat some wonton noodles at the restaurant at the bottom of my building.


  • 10 a.m.: MTR to work.
  • 7 p.m. : MTR from work to Central station along the Island line (I call it the blue line). There are seven MTR lines and three KCR lines, but the two companies merged last year and so there is one giant subway/train network. Mind the gap! (yes, they say that every time the door closes, first in Cantonese, then in Mandarin, then in English)
  • 9 p.m.: After dinner and drinks, a man comes to my friend and I that a typhoon no. eight signal will be hoisted by 11 p.m. so we’re all going to have clear out early. Signal number eight = ferries cancelled, mass transit significantly reduced. I grab a taxi, take a 7 minute ride (cost: $3) and get on a ferry to my boyfriend’s house in Discovery Bay. The ferry there leaves from the central ferry pier, which a block of nine different piers going to various outlying islands and also includes the very cool Star Ferry. Brief digression: the Star Ferry goes from Central or Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. It is the best thing you can buy for 30 cents…
    The ferry to Discovery Bay (for which you can use your Octopus card or another ferry transit card) takes 25 minutes, usually pleasant and people often buy beers at the convenience store and drink them on the upper deck. Seeing as it’s heavy rain and winds, the journey this time isn’t particularly fun.


  • Signal number eight still hoisted… School is cancelled (signal no. 8 is equivalent to an Ottawa snow day) but I still need to go to work. Except, I’m stranded on an island and from the living room window there are absolutely no ferries coming and going. False alarm when I misidentify a moored boat for a departing ferry.
  • 12 p.m. : Ferries start
  • 1 p.m. : Ferry from Discovery Bay to Central. MTR from Central to work…
  • 6:30 p.m. : Very short day at work because I have dinner plans. Taxi from work to the ferry pier (total cost $8) which takes about 12 minutes. Taxis here are much cheaper than anywhere else I’ve ever been. In Vancouver a couple of months back, I took a similar 15-minute trip and it cost about $20. At the same time, housing costs here are absolutely ridiculous so cheap public transit is necessary. Some of my friends/acquaintances have cars, but many of them are either wealthy or live beyond the subway lines. On Discovery Bay, if you don’t use public transport or ride a bike (have never seen anyone rollerblade), you can acquire a license for a golf cart. In Canada, you could buy a Maserati for the price of this golf cart license.
    Most things in Hong Kong don’t make sense. You just have to go with it.
    Ferry to Discovery Bay. Bus to a friend’s house for dinner for shepherd’s pie (did anyone else know that shepherd’s pie is supposed to have lamb and if you eat it with beef then it’s actually called cottage pie?)


  • 8 a.m. : Bus, ferry, subway to home and work all using various electronic cards that “doot”.
  • 8 p.m. : Leave work and take the 10-minute subway ride home.


  • 7:30 a.m. : MTR to work (I have to call New York at 8 a.m. which is Thursday 8 p.m. New York time)
  • 10:30 a.m. : Take the purple line and then the green line to Kowloon Tong. Then transfer to the KCR (which is mostly above ground and services the New Territories) to Sha Tin, then take a $4 taxi ride to the race course to visit the equine hospital. It’s work – don’t ask.
  • 2 p.m. : Repeat process in reverse and come back to work, but stop off at Club Monaco at the mall in Kowloon Tong. Weigh the pros and cons of Hong Kong public transport.
Transit I didn’t take in these five days, but which I normally would use: the Star Ferry and a mini-bus, which often require you to yell at the driver when you want to get off the bus.


A huge thank-you to Mel for writing this account of HK transit. If any readers have experienced public transit in another city and can compare it to that in Ottawa, send me an e-mail at to discuss a submission.

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