HE world-renowned Peak Tram is the grand old lady of Hong Kong's
public transport network. She will celebrate her 110th birthday next
year having survived a colourful history of war, floods and typhoons.
In his book, Excellency: The Governors of Hong Kong, Russell Spurr
noted that the 25-year-old second son of Britain's Queen Victoria,
Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, became, in 1869, "the first royal visitor
to make the ritual trip to the Peak".
He added: "The royal chaplain commented that His Highness `expressed
his surprise that the wealthy merchant princes of the colony had not
yet availed themselves of the opportunity of the presence in the
vicinity of their city of a position offering so bracing a climate, in
the hottest time of the year.' In another age, that would have been
called a commercial. The rush to the Peak began."
The question was: how do you get there? One well-known local
eccentric, E R Belilios, travelled up and down by camel. Others rode
horses. Most, however, commuted by sedan chair.
One correspondent wrote: "The narrow path is in places perpendicular.
As you sit in your chair and look down the precipices over which one
false step would plunge you into the mountain torrents hundreds of
feet below, you experience feelings of awe and admiration similar to
those felt when crossing the Alps. Up and up we went, our sure-footed
coolies never stumbling. To see those fellows toiling under their
human burden over rocks and stones where we, even walking, would find
it difficult to step with accuracy, is really a wonderful sight and
not one to be forgotten."
But the Peak Tram did not materialise until nearly 20 years after the
royal visit. The first terminal was built in 1888, a wooden structure
constructed by Alexander Findlay Smith, who owned a hotel on the Peak.
Findlay Smith originally petitioned in 1881 for the right to introduce
this revolutionary new form of transport to Asia. It took three years
to build the tramway. Much of the heavy equipment and rails were
hauled up by the workers themselves. And when the tramway was finally
completed it was considered a marvel in engineering. It was formally
opened by Governor Sir William Des Voeux on 28 May that year.
In his chapter on Des Voeux, Spurr wrote: "Life at the top of
Victoria's scenic Peak became an attractive and practical alternative
with the opening of the Peak Tram. Though a heavy landslide nearly
sent the tramway's first operators into liquidation, the funicular
railway that ran between Garden Road and Victoria Gap _ 397 metres
above sea level _ soon became one of Hong Kong's most famous
On the first day of operation, a local journalist wrote: "A few
passengers, ladies included, availed themselves of the opportunity to
enjoy a healthy ramble over the breezy hills in the early morning _ an
extremely healthy diversion which we will never tire of recommending
to residents in the lower levels after the oppressive nights which
they have to endure in this season."
Another reporter wrote in the China Mail: "There is nothing to cause
the least of nervousness and the car rises smoothly and steadily to
the Victoria Gap."
On the second day of the service 600 people travelled up to the Peak.
A total of 150,000 people rode the Tram in 1888, when Hong Kong's
population was about 175,000. The tramway now attracts more than two
million passengers a year.
The peaceful transportation of tramloads of residents and tourists
today lends a permanent holiday atmosphere to this veteran of the
tracks. But the Tram has known times of turbulence. After the Japanese
forces occupied the Kowloon Peninsula in December 1941, they installed
heavy artillery there and commenced shelling the Peak in an effort to
destroy the barracks.
The engine room of the Tram was severely damaged and to this day there
is still part of a Japanese shell lodged under a base plate.
Jack Chubb, the superintendent engineer at that time, spent several
hours cutting essential wiring in the engine room to make sure that
the Japanese would not be able to use the Peak Tram. Unfortunately,
his work was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Japanese troops, but
he managed to conceal his wire cutters or he would have suffered the
fate of other saboteurs _ decapitation.
In 1967 the Cultural Revolution in China spread to Hong Kong, causing
considerable damage to lives and property. Most transport companies
ceased operations but the Peak Tram continued to run through the
riots, and it was only when the government imposed a curfew that
service was suspended on the nights of 11 and 12 July from 7 pm until
Natural disasters came in the form of floods. The first was in 1899,
when a length of track between Bowen Road and Kennedy Road Stations
was completely washed away after 691.9 millimetre of rain had fallen
in a 24-hour period.
The second occurred on 12 June 1966. Again the track between Bowen
Road and Kennedy Road Stations was the victim of the elements after a
460.4 mm downpour, which lasted 48 hours. Water cascaded across the
track, rocks and earth smashed down the hillside and a tram car was
derailed. But no passengers were hurt. The service was suspended for
one week while the necessary repairs were made.
In 1924 some people falsely prophesied that the Tram's day was done
when the first road was built to the Peak.
Celebrity passengers over the years have included the late United
States president Richard Nixon, former US secretary of state Henry
Kissinger, the Queen of Thailand and the Sultan of Brunei. The tram
received Hollywood treatment when the late actor Clark Gable came here
to make the movie, Soldier of Fortune.
The Star Ferry, which will celebrate its 100th birthday next year, and
the Peak Tram may be taken for granted by many of Hong Kong's regular
commuters, but for the tourist they are among the magical ingredients
which make a visit to Hong Kong so memorable.
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