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.
1980 — TSUEN WAN LINE/Admiralty
Commenced operations: 16 December 1979
Most recent extension: May 1982
Stations: 16 (9 unique)
Colour on map: red
Talk about serendipity. This piece goes out on the 41st anniversary of Admiralty station opening to passengers, a date which is doubtlessly being celebrated by countless citizens across the city. But it’s also Chinese New Year here in Hong Kong, a festival significant to us youngsters particularly because we get a lot of red packets from our elder relatives, which adds up to quite a significant windfall.
I don’t mean to sound cynical in the way I’m portraying us citizens — I’m pretty sure that most of us celebrate the Lunar New Year as a time for family gatherings, rather than for financial gain. But Hong Kong is at its heart a city of finance. Money seeps, inevitably, into our daily lives. In this city, that includes the metro here as well: Admiralty station, probably the most important stop on the entire network, is situated right next to our financial institutions, which means that every day it plays host to floods of people, streaming in and out of the entry gates or changing trains on their way to work, to make even more money for the system that props up Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub. So many people make that journey, day in, day out. Admiralty station might just be the greatest cesspit of life in Hong Kong.
Since this is the sort of thing that has to be seen to be believed, let us do so now. (Or rather, let me do so while you sit back and think of other articles you could be reading.) The best way to arrive at Admiralty is on the Tsuen Wan line (TWL), the line that runs the length of West Kowloon before spanning the narrow channel that is Victoria Harbour to reach Hong Kong Island. The ride across to Admiralty, the first station on the other side of the Harbour, is long compared to previous intervals — over three minutes — and as you stand there, your shoulders crammed tight against somebody else’s, waiting for the next station to come, perhaps you begin to wonder: what’s on the other end of the tunnel? A grandiose structure, a squat little station? Then your southbound train slows, and a metallic voice reminds you to “please mind the gap”. You never hear that warning at other stations, and there’s just enough time to think “what kind of station is Admiralty” before you swoop in, your faces reflected in the blue glass panels flashing by not eight feet away from the train. There was a time when these panels were all blindingly yellow: a quirky visual pun on the “金” (gold) of “金鐘”, perhaps. These days, they’re all bright blue in line with the station, and that glorious anomaly is now commemorated only by the hideous crossfade panels dominating the concourse above.
But back to our arrival at Admiralty. The doors open, and you step out onto the wide, wide platform. I am assuming that you have somehow managed to be at the front of the crowd as you do this, but God help you if you happen to get distracted as the doors open: move too slowly, and a horde of citizens will be breathing down your neck, cursing you and the day you were born as they stream in a thousand different directions. If there also happens to be a train on the opposite platform, you are advised to get out of the way, lest your fellow commuters trample you as they sprint at superhuman speeds for this vital connection. (Cartoonist Larry Feign once described this cross-platform interchange as the city’s sport, a hyperbole I have no qualms agreeing with.) It is difficult to overstate the amount of people you can find swarming round Admiralty: I had the misfortune of having to cross one of the platforms widthways while out taking pictures for this article, and the number of angry looks I got while taking these pictures was truly remarkable. The things I do for your entertainment.
A kaleidoscope of colours and fabrics and hairstyles swarm around the station platforms, in search of their next connection or exit. It’s like bees escaping a hive, except these people are angrier. Upstairs, a multitude of exits allow everyone to escape into the open, into the numerous buildings that surround the station, the banks and the courts and the government buildings, where transactions will be made, cases will be judged, and policies, for good or ill, formulated and enacted upon the general public. All of this a mere stone’s throw away from Admiralty. It’s not so much a station as a great melting pot, attracting people from all walks of life to descend on it, to make Hong Kong work. (Sometimes, they even manage to not foul it up completely.)
In a sense, it’s fitting that you can find Admiralty and its messier sister Central at the end of the Tsuen Wan line. There will be people in the comments who argue against me on this, but the 14 stations preceding Admiralty feel like a journey, a lesson on what Hong Kong is made of. Starting at the Western fringes of urban Hong Kong, just a few hundred metres away from countryside, the line passes through container terminals, underneath old industrial areas and shabby tenements and through the city’s entertainment and cultural precincts before tunnelling under Victoria Harbour to land at our city’s financial hub. It skirts past old villages, new skyscrapers. It travels the length of our most important road, straddles our most important waterway. Almost every station on the line is a gateway to a piece of Hong Kong’s history, a movement in the symphony of the city, a symphony that has nothing but greatest hits.
And at the end of the line, you have Admiralty as the climatic finale, the ultimate expression of all these lines combined, released in one massive flood of humanity. True, the line continues after that, dutifully chugging its way to Central and the centre of history. But that station feels like an anomaly, an epilogue tacked on as an afterthought. It doesn’t even fit in with the rest of its surroundings. (Anyone who’s visited Central MTR before will know just how teensy and claustrophobic the TWL platforms are, an inferior predecessor to the Island line ones down the street.) No, everything interesting happens at Admiralty, a station full of life and layers.
What’s even more exciting is how all those layers, both physical and social, mix with each other on the TWL. Let’s start with the physical: being at the centre of Hong Kong and everything, the MTR Corporation has been very eager to develop this as another railway hub. So it is that by spring next year, Admiralty station will be hosting four separate lines; with a new station to be opened just across Harcourt Road in the next decade, this is set to jump to six. (SIX lines coming together! On two sides of a road! Eat your heart out, Diamond Hill.) Obviously being at the centre of a bustling metropolis (not to mention in between a hundred different tall and heavy buildings) meant that there wasn’t a lot of space for them to build their large station. So they dug down: at first it was just two lines, crossing each other’s paths, sharing their ridership pools. But when the South Island line (SIL, of which more in October) opened in 2016, they dug a new station that was four more floors deep.
It’s like a whole other world in itself. Gone is the traditional blue livery, the wide-open spaces, and most importantly the cross-platform interchanges. Instead, we’ve got columns of white marble, narrow passages deep underground. But there are a few things that haven’t changed: the crowds are still dense as ever. The very loud station assistants. And on top of all that, the architecture is still excellent: tastefully chosen glass facades, marble surfaces, ambient lighting. There’s a feeling of consistency no matter how far below the ground you are, a feeling of continuity as you move from one level to the next, despite the different colours and the change in lines. The physical layers here at Admiralty don’t just feel harmonious, they blend in with each other seamlessly. You don’t get that often in stations built 40 years apart.
It’s on our way from the SIL platforms that we catch a glimpse of their art installation: faded shots of people going around the system, overlaid with abstract bar charts of soundwaves. If you strain your ears, you can hear above the cacophony of escalator announcements faint whispers of broadcast crowd noise, recordings of commuters just going about their business within the station. And it’s here that you find the other great mixing of layers at Admiralty: within that crowd and the bar-chart cataloguing the times, it’s possible to hear so many different voices from across society. The past fourteen stations of the TWL show a cross-section of Hong Kong: the workers, the schoolkids, the suits on a mission to reform things, the oldsters just trying to get by. You have so many people crowding onto the train at those stops, you have so many representatives of the city getting on. All of these people are released on the world at Admiralty, at the heart of the city, and for a few moments you get people mingling with each other. True, in terms of conversation you don’t get anything more promising than an “excuse me” and a few choice oaths, but it’s in this great mass of humanity that you find businessmen rubbing shoulders with the janitor, schoolgirls crossing paths with professors.
This is the beauty of Admiralty station, not just as a metro station, but also as a public space. There’s no chance for anybody to get away from each other on the train: you’re all hemmed in there. On the road, you might choose to ensconce yourselves in the safety of your own car, or choose your own seat on the bus or tram. You can’t do that in a metro. And maybe you don’t WANT to do that on a metro: if you’re getting onto the public space of the MTR, you’re choosing to partake in the great experiment of the mixing of peoples. There’s no chance for you to be snobbish about your company. If you want to get socialist about it all, the class system breaks down, just a bit, on the train. And Admiralty is the great catchment area: it’s the magnet on which everyone descends to make Hong Kong work. Of course, it’s easy to then say that this applies to every line: the TWL does not have a monopoly on this breaking of social class. And that’s true, but no other line on the MTR illustrates this as perfectly. Nowhere else on the system do you get places that are so clearly (if somewhat stereotypically) distinguishable as different exemplars of what makes up Hong Kong. Like I said, the TWL is a story in itself.
I had a taste of this story myself in the summer of 2019, when I was doing a summer job at the University of Hong Kong. Every weekday morning, I had to get on at Prince Edward with a whole bunch of these people. And every day, I’d change trains at the crowded Admiralty, charging down the huge blue-white staircase with its gigantic QR code. (I never stayed on the train to Central, even though it was on my way: trusting the crowds to thin before the next stop was a dangerous game to play.) But before that, I’d get pushed further and further into the carriage, struggling to balance my bulging backpack on my toes and seeing a collage of uniforms and clothes — all chatting at volumes previously associated with football matches or rowdy protests. What struck me was how different the modulations and accents sounded: sometimes you’d hear people speaking as if they were straight out of a drama; sometimes they were much more coarse and angry. You’d never find an entire society in there, but I always thought it was pretty darn close.
And of course, speaking of the summer of 2019, we have to ascend to the surface and talk about more sensitive things. Here we walk towards exits A and B: though in close proximity with each other, they could not be about more different things. Exit B is now for Drake Street, but it used to be for “the Ocean Park Shuttle Bus”: a leisure service now rendered obsolete by the aforementioned SIL. (There’s already so much to talk about in October.) But opposite that, we have exit A. The sign says “Admiralty Centre”, but nobody calls it by that name. It’s far better known as the exit for the government headquarters.
(While I was taking pictures, I almost bumped into former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, who gave me a weird look. And they say that writing is a dull business…)
Where do I start with such a sensitive topic? These days the MTR Corporation has been roundly lambasted for being a shady corporation and obstructing protesters when it comes to revealing inconvenient truths. Its complete inaction in times of crisis has left a lot of citizens (rightly) furious. Before all of that happened, however, all the action concerning the MTR system itself was during the early protests, when the streets around Admiralty station were filled with people in black, demanding their freedom. I’m not one of those who hold particularly strong views on identity — I think my language throughout these thinkpieces have made that clear — but what I do find fascinating (and relevant here) is how the precinct became a focal point for citizens, no matter their occupation, and back then the news was full of images of people streaming into the stations, proud that they’d done their civic duty. It’s a reason why I like to think of Admiralty station as a station representing Hong Kong: one where every type of citizen (well, almost every type) gathered, and stood with a common purpose.
As time went by, of course, people got impatient. Today, looking at the Admiralty Centre exit, the scars of the conflict are still plain to see. Bland white boards have replaced the glass that stood surrounding the station at the time, while CCTV cameras can be found shooting every corner. Taking these pictures, I couldn’t help feeling slightly paranoid about an over-eager station official coming up to throw me off the premises. Of course, I would always have been in the right, but big corporations aren’t that bothered about that kind of thing these days. And I’m always insecure.
But is that all? Is Admiralty’s legacy merely confined to broken glass and a forced uniting of the peoples? To answer that question, let us take one last walk. Turning around the corner, we see a massive structure, wrapped in scaffolding and cloth. Admiralty station, you see, has exits A, B, C, D and F… but no E. This ugly structure, looking very much like a patient who’s just undergone some horrifying plastic surgery, is that missing exit, rebuilt as a result of an extension from Kowloon (the very same one that Diamond Hill spent 40+ years getting round to). When it opens, hopefully next year, it’ll bring in tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of passengers. Walk a bit further down Rodney Street, go up some steps, and we find ourselves on a footbridge spanning Queensway, one of the most poetically named arteries of Hong Kong. On the other end of the bridge, we find Pacific Place, an upscale shopping centre hawking goods that I have no chance in hell of buying. Next to it, three exits point us in three different directions: Hong Kong Park, the High Court — and of course, the MTR.
It’s this eclectic mix of exits that give me my final revelation of my rambling (and hastily written-during-CNY-dinner) monologue. I said last time that what the MTR created was the opportunity to go anywhere you liked: what Admiralty adds to that idea is the feeling of egalitarianism. I recognize that our history in the past two years will not encourage this reading, but I still think that Hong Kong, like the metro system that runs underneath it, is for all intents and purposes a success story. That success story happens because of all the people that the city brought together, peoples gathered in one place by the TWL — probably the network’s most representative line. Hong Kong is still Hong Kong because it’s full of us, of people trying to make it work. In the same way, Admiralty is a station that connects many bits and pieces to create a weird and wonderful mosaic of curiosities. It’s the glue that holds them together — and it doesn’t necessarily fit. But there’s a constant search for improvement, and it’s made possible by all the people descending on it every day.
Saying all this, you might think that Admiralty is my favourite MTR station. It’s not. It’s not even my favourite station on the TWL. (Another shameless plug, this time for my pieces for April, May and August. Such excitement!) But you can’t find a better analogy for Hong Kong than Admiralty station, no better representation than the four lines, six (well, five-and-a-half) exits and the countless commuters that crowd into that miniscule space. It’s still early days, but I’m calling it now: Admiralty is the most important station I’ll be writing about. The other ones… just side attractions, really.
That said, please do come back to read the next ten. Thank you.
Next time: the Island Line begs the question “just how much development should we be squeezing into this place anyway?”