I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life.— Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Red-Headed League”
People who’ve known me for a while now will be aware of the fact that I am very interested in metro systems. A triumph over surface geography, these systems burrow deep underground, snaking in between buildings and streets and get people from A to B in record time, and I love them to bits. I’ve gone on special tours to see new stations, know station livery by heart, and even written a couple of stories about it. It’s one of the few childhood pastimes I have which hasn’t caused me great embarrassment as I grow up — it’s always useful to know shortcuts across networks and little facts about exits, and here in Hong Kong everybody loves a transport enthusiast anyway. (Seriously. London ain’t got nothing on the fanatics you can find here.)
Yet I’ve never really sat down to think about why I love the underground so much. It’s been easy to fob off questions like that with the simple words “oh, it’s just a pastime of mine” when pressed, but now after so many years I’ve been wondering about the relationship metro systems have with the city they serve. And these days, we all have the license to write deeply on blogs and even magazines about the things we love — music, books, things that turn us on. So I thought: why not try faux-philosophizing on a metro system if that’s what I love?
The obvious place to start is, of course, the one I’m most familiar with: Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway system, or MTR for short. Opened in 1979, this system has been transporting passengers all across Hong Kong for more than four decades now, and despite some recent dips in performance (to say nothing of alleged governmental manipulation, which I might get to someday) it’s still by far the most popular mode of transport in the city, with four million passengers a day. It’s a system we take for granted here — most of us don’t really bother with driving when the buses and especially the trains are so convenient, and the merest signal failure is enough to send much of the working force into a tizzy that takes hours to recuperate from. Here in Hong Kong, it’s safe to say that, despite recent valiant attempts to prove otherwise, our lives are very much tied to the MTR. This series is an attempt to explore how, over the last 42 years, this system has shaped Hong Kong in its own way, and led to some pretty drastic changes in the way we citizens see this city too.
If you’re expecting a rumination on what Hong Kong is, however, I’m afraid I have to disappoint — despite living here for most of my life, I do not consider myself to have a particularly deep connection with it, or a passion that can match any of the localists you see furtively campaigning around the city. Nor is this going to be a particularly deep piece that goes into existential questions like “why is Hong Kong?”. I am emphatically not a deep thinker, and any philosophy I get to inevitably happens to have been produced like twenty years earlier. Instead, consider this a character study where the “characters” in question are metro lines. This is a story of how a metro network grows and expands, viewed through ten specially chosen stations that I feel are a microcosm of the lines they’re situated on. They’re not the best stations on the line, but put together they give us a pretty good idea on how a metro system can become a fundamental part of a city and the people who live within it.
If there are any overseas readers, I assure you that you won’t need an intimate knowledge of the MTR or of Hong Kong to understand these pieces: simply treat these as a not-very-useful guide to places in a faraway land. (That said, though, I’ve added a geographical note at the bottom which hopefully will be enough to give you all an idea of how the city works.) This is a series on one metro system, but I see no reason why it can’t be expanded to other cities’ metro systems, which are themselves filled with fascinating things and places to visit. (If Transport for London or the RATP would like to sponsor me, I am very open to writing similar pieces for the Tube or the Paris Metro.)
It only remains for me to wish you all well and to see you on Friday for my first piece! These will be published monthly on Fridays — I’m an MPhil student who also needs to write a 35,000-word thesis — and with luck I’ll be able to juggle the two. We’ll see!
A basic note on geography (for overseas readers)
Hong Kong is basically four components: the New Territories, Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island. (There are other smaller outlying islands, but for our purposes we can ignore them.) Basically if you draw a humongous circle and then two tiny ones underneath, you have the first three in a line from north to south; Lantau Island is a slightly larger circle to the left of the two tiny ones. Local readers will realize that this is a gross simplification, but then again you didn’t come here looking for nuance, did you?