Wednesday, October 7, 2015   

Grand old lady to turn 110

Eric Cavaliero

Thursday, July 24, 1997

Eric Cavaliero


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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