In Between the Lines is my wandering journey through each and every line of Hong Kong’s efficient MTR system, as well as a reflection on their place in a network I love.
1979 — KWUN TONG LINE (KTL)/Diamond Hill
Commenced operations: 1 October 1979
Most recent extension: October 2016
Stations: 17 (9 unique)
Colour on map: green
Here’s a fun experiment for my overseas readers. The next time you talk to a local here, mention Diamond Hill in a conversation and then casually wonder if there are any diamonds there. Provided that they don’t start giving you suspicious looks, almost every one of them will rush to inform you that no, “Diamond Hill” is a misnomer: although the characters “鑽石” can mean “diamond” in Chinese, it can also be taken apart to mean “rock mining”. (Welcome to the Chinese language, ladies and gentlemen.) There aren’t any diamonds here, just an old forgotten mine nearby. Everybody knows that.
There used to be so little here, in fact, that one might well question the wisdom of opening a railway station here. When the plans for the MTR were drawn up in the mid-1960s, it was agreed that not only was there was going to be a station here from the start, but it would be a massive interchange: the Kwun Tong line, going through the older districts in the east of Kowloon, would intersect with a line coming down from the New Territories to the north. The KTL trains would come in, and the doors would open on both sides, allowing people to get across to other platforms and lines simply by cutting across a train in the station. (The subsequent abandonment of these plans is a prime example of how Hong Kong prefers to have as little fun as possible.)
Arriving on a KTL train today, one might still be able to glimpse the evidence of that plan. The island platform is unusually wide, a relic of the idea that it would be central to these interchange plans. Sticking your head close to the screen doors at platform 2 and squinting — not that you should ever do such a thing, a fact I discovered too late — a wide, cavernous void opens up behind the billboards, through which you can faintly see some ruins in a desolate, plain landscape. Not only is it evidence of the platforms they were planning to build for the New Territories line, it’s also an apt visual metaphor for the effects of advertising in general.
As we stride down the platform, taking in the crowds that alight here and change trains, go shopping or heading to their jobs in the neighbouring industrial district, it’s tempting to suggest that the original plan was on to some prescient ideas. After all, the station looks astonishingly like its planned form, more than fifty years after the plans were drawn up. But back then, this would have been absolute folly: there was absolutely nothing here that would point to potential for development. The closest landmarks were a nunnery and some film studios, neither of which attract holiday goers by the bucketload; the only settlement of note was a village that was very much self-contained and didn’t need any of your fancy underground roads driving through their territory. Putting a station here, then, felt forced — a case of “stick whatever we have here and hope it brings the crowds”. Usually it’s the other way round.
But Diamond Hill was an anomaly, a station that existed because of convenience. All the other stations on the KTL — Mong Kok, Lok Fu, Kowloon Bay — those existed for the residents, people who lived in large numbers around the stations and would gladly throw themselves underground to get to their place of work or play. Even Kowloon Tong, the other station on the line which existed for interchange purposes, that had the comfort of knowing that it would soon have a connection to the all-important Kowloon-Canton Railway. Thousands of riders from the new suburbs up north would be crowding up those halls soon enough. By contrast, Diamond Hill was built as a hub — it was very much there for the possibility of a second line. And that Shatin line, the one that the authorities always said they were getting round to — that remained a fantasy for decades. Nobody really could agree on who was going to build it. Diamond Hill festered as an interchange throughout the system’s first decade, empty and cold except for the trickle of people that would arrive for work in the industrial village next door.
In that case, using Diamond Hill to represent the Kwun Tong line — the genesis of the whole system, with a claim to being its most important line — seems counterintuitive. Everything here, the widened platforms that we’re still walking down, the silvery specks that we find on the pitch-black tiling: these all scream “exception” rather than “rule”. You simply can’t find a station like this anywhere else on the line. But I’d like to posit that far from being its most outlandish station, Diamond Hill has slowly, gradually, come to represent the entire line, perhaps even the system itself, too.
To see what this means, let us (finally) ascend to the concourse and crane our heads expectantly in search of exit C. (You didn’t seriously expect me to stay underground the whole time, did you?) The crowd thickens as we walk past the lurid green passageway to our right, a crush of humanity flooding in and sweeping us up in their current. We glimpse flashes of green, of white, of fluorescent lights as we allow ourselves to be carried through the corridors of the exit, up the creaking escalators that always sound like they’re about to give up on life. The roar of the crowd rises and falls along the way — mutters, shouts, countless arguments being had on phones. Then a second roar reaches our ears: a rolling thunder that draws closer and closer, and all of a sudden we’ve reached the surface and are being spat out into a dusty, dimly-lit space.
It’s the vastness of the developments above that gets you. To your left, a humongous transport interchange, the air stagnant and foul, the lights a sickly yellow. In front of you, a ridiculously gaudy shopping mall, its escalators slowly rising into the heavens, gigantic pieces of machinery completely dwarfing the people who come and go, and who don’t stop and say hello. Everything is huge, sluggish, and pompous, the blank face of modernity and capitalism incarnate. And look, I’m a fan of the former and am reasonably ambivalent about the latter, but the two just don’t go well together. It’s suffocating, and not just because of the exhaust fumes the buses are making.
Looking at all this, it’s hard to imagine that this used to be a desolate, insular village fifty years ago. But times change. The city expanded, and the film studios moved out, leaving a large piece of land that just sat there, encroached upon by villagers looking to expand their turf. Never one to let a piece of prime real estate go, developers leapt at this vast expanse of nothingness surrounding the station. Now people were moving in, now the place seemed to be waking up. Then in 1991, a highway and tunnel opened next door, a huge housing estate was completed up the street, and suddenly Diamond Hill was the transport megahub it had always pretended to be. Buses crowded into the new transport interchange, commuters flocked through the exits non-stop. A few years after that, they opened a shopping mall and a new housing estate directly above the station — we take such blatant cashgrabs for granted these days, but back then this was almost unheard-of. People around town went into collective ecstasy. To say that Diamond Hill exploded in popularity is to understate things by a long shot.
The people planning the MTR, seeing all of this, patted themselves on the back and congratulated each other on having gotten it right all along. For Diamond Hill was and still is, without doubt, a success story. It’s a story of improbable success — such an uptick of activity that exceeded all expectations and turned it into a focal point for transportation. These days, you can go anywhere from here: there are minibuses to far-flung countryside villages, buses to secluded beaches, and trains to — well, anywhere, basically. Don’t get me wrong, the development of a mass transit system wasn’t in any way a HUGE risk in the dense jungle of our city: the population was nearing five million in 1979 and a metro system would have been necessary sooner or later. But I’m pretty sure that nobody could have dreamed of this level of prosperity 42 years ago. When the KTL opened, it was a relief to the buses and the minibuses that were crowding the streets; today, it’s the other way round. All of this is not possible without this station, without the line it fed: extraordinary foresight and quite a bit of canny planning that made this line a surefire hit with the masses, ensuring that ridership has only gone up since it opened in September 1979.
And we could very well leave it there, herald the coming of the Kwun Tong line and the MTR system as a new dawn for transport in Hong Kong. It was a hit. We have our happy ending. What more is there to say?
Except. As a lit major, I know how delicate happy endings are. For most of us, a happy ending is a sign for us to turn off the screen, go in search of the next broken situation that needs to be made whole again. That final victory is frozen in our minds, an unchanging moment in time. There is simply no such thing as an “afterwards”. And yet in real life we have no such luxury as a happy ending — we may choose to cut off the story at some arbitrary point, but reality marches on. Everything afterwards cannot just be negated, or their need to exist forgotten. Now, I realize that this sounds suspiciously like those cynical diatribes that go “nothing good lasts forever”, but hear me out: it’s the opposite I’m trying to say here.
So let’s walk on, see what comes after the happy ending the KTL created. Having burrowed through the entire transport interchange, causing our lungs permanent damage, we emerge into the sunshine of Diamond Hill. On the other side of Lung Poon Street, another exit beckons: this one is smaller, flatter, somewhat less assuming. Let’s go back in: this freezing January air is cutting our cheeks. We descend into the bowels of the station, inhaling once more the slightly heady mix of dust and cloth and construction work that MTR stations always seem to have. (That’s the great thing about the MTR: it never smells of piss the way London or New York’s systems do.) The traffic of Highway Route 7 thunders above our heads, but it’s the sound of the escalators and the announcements that echo through this squat, emerald tunnel — hold the handrail, take the lift, don’t keep your eyes only on your mobile phone. Then we come to a fork in the road.
We’ve already been to the Kwun Tong line platforms, so let’s see where the signs for the Tuen Ma line take us. The corridor widens as we begin sloping upwards, slowly but surely. Other transitions are a little more abrupt: the tiles on the wall start to flow seamlessly, the environs somehow brighter. I am old enough to remember when this end of the corridor was just a stub leading to a wide deserted exit, the unprepossessing words “Tai Hom Village” being etched onto the faintly glowing board above the short staircase up. It would feel like the most mysterious place on earth: were there villages, here in the heart of the city? Were there people ploughing fields and wearing ridiculous sunhats? I never found out, and today that mystique no longer exists: the exit has been renamed the very familiar “San Po Kong”, and thousands flock through it as we walk past, looking for trains in two different colours. Ignoring the gaping maw of the streets, we turn the corridor, head down some steps, and suddenly we find ourselves in another concourse.
This is the concourse for the Tuen Ma line (TML), AKA “that long-delayed line from the New Territories”. After four decades of mucking about, it finally opened in the spring of 2020 to a chorus of relief from commuters and the immediate horror of bus companies. (My fellow citizens are currently grumbling about how useless it is, but grumbling about imperfection is integral to the city’s character.) Instead of going for the marvellous situation I mentioned earlier on in this piece, they excavated a completely new site south of the original station and went to town on the platform design.
Now, here’s the thing. Because of a construction scandal — depressingly common these days when it comes to huge transport projects in HK — only half the line was opened, severely limiting its usefulness. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic being in full swing, TML trains were few and far between. (I know that 8-minute intervals might sound acceptable to foreign readers, but here in Hong Kong it’s considered an utter travesty.) So in theory, this addition to the network shouldn’t have brought much more commuters to the station. But Diamond Hill boomed. MTR doesn’t release ridership figures for individual stations, but every time I get off a train here, I see a crowd surging into the connecting corridors, a hubbub of noise and hair that just doesn’t stop coming. Moses would have swooned if he’d seen this crowd exiting Egypt.
The happy ending, as it happens, kept on happening. These days, Diamond Hill is probably one of the most important stations on the network — certainly the most important on the KTL. (Some people might demur and say Mong Kok, but if forced to make a choice between the two, nobody in their right mind would choose to wipe Diamond Hill from existence.) It caters to an astonishing amount of commuters, and bear in mind that it only caters for a line and a half: passengers are set to increase when the TML finally opens through one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most crowded city districts. There’s even talk of adding a third line to Diamond Hill’s repertoire: a relief line for the KTL, threading its way through the housing estates of northeast Kowloon. Almost a half-century after it opened, Diamond Hill’s still moving up the ranks, unquenchable in its thirst for people and trains alike, uncrushable in its momentum.
And it’s that momentum that surprises me most when I look at the KTL and Diamond Hill in particular. I use the station quite a lot, yet it wasn’t until I sat down to write this piece that I realized just how much of an artery the KTL is, and how much of the MTR springs from that single line that opened 42 years ago. The station, the line, the system, all of these attained success in the intervening years, a happy ending which we then took for granted and used it again and again. I don’t mean to say that we should be grateful or anything for how this line exploded in popularity and led to the creation of other lines — it’s a metro line, for heaven’s sake, not Paul McCartney — but the way it has so seamlessly entwined itself within so many people’s lives, established itself as an essential feature? That deserves a bit of thought, especially when you look at an unlikely candidate for success like Diamond Hill. When even the dinkiest station can transform into a fully-fledged transport centrepoint, you know it’s something special.
So what does that success tell us? That sometimes, we take being able to go anywhere for granted. These days, quick and easy transportation in Hong Kong is just a fact of life: the ability to get on a train and be in a completely different district in ten minutes doesn’t raise an eyebrow. It was only barely possible in 1979, yet nowadays it has become mundane in its simplicity. And perhaps that’s what a good metro system, a good metro line, should be doing: working silently in the background, sliding so imperceptibly into our lives that we come to accept it for what it is — a miracle of transportation. Recent signal failures, fare hikes and protests have created a dent in the line and the system’s popularity, but sooner or later commuters drift back to the MTR. The temptation of being able to go anywhere, of being able to get there in the blink of an eye, has proved too much to ignore. We’re too attracted to happy endings.
And that’s what strikes me about the KTL as a metro line. That story, the progress to that happy ending we envision in our minds, that starts here at Diamond Hill, in the depths of the Kwun Tong line. With more than forty years’ history under its belt, it’s still standing, still expanding, still providing the base for a story of transport intrigue. Standing in the concourse of the station, with the whole network opening up before your feet, you can’t help but be awed at everything it’s made possible. You can go anywhere from here, almost in the blink of an eye. Just imagine.
And having said that, let’s go down. We’ve got eleven more stations to visit this year.
Next time: the Tsuen Wan line strikes straight through the centre of Hong Kong, kicking transport in the city into a higher gear.