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.
1985 — ISLAND LINE/Sai Wan Ho
Commenced operations: 31 May 1985
Most recent extension: March 2015
Stations: 17 (13 unique)
Sai Wan Ho wasn’t my first pick. For that matter, it wasn’t even my second: my first two candidates were Shau Kei Wan and Tai Koo, the two stations on either side of the station we’re talking about today. The former station marks the eastern end of Hong Kong’s double-decker tram system, the latter is probably my favourite station on the line. I was going to deliver an impassioned commentary (well, as impassioned as an Asperger’s kid can get) on how the MTR both complemented and surpassed it as a transport system, leading to a deep-sounding allegory on how the old is constantly fighting for dominance with the new on Hong Kong Island.
Then I visited Shau Kei Wan, and found that very few of those things were true. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the people who live in and around the area, but this place is just not what I think of when it comes to the Island Line. For one thing, it has a transport interchange, a place set aside for transport where, as in the case of Diamond Hill, you can absolutely go anywhere you please. You would be hard-pressed to find a place on the rest of the line that allows you this ludicrous luxury. (Well, there’s Admiralty, but is it really part of the Island Line?) There are more madmen on the Island Line than there are transport interchanges. But also: Shau Kei Wan station is massive. You could come out of an exit and feel as if you were a different country. As we shall soon see, this is simply not what happens on the ISL. So I had to find an alternative. With that in mind, the small, dinky station next door presented itself.
It took me a while to come to that conclusion, though, because Sai Wan Ho is simply not the sort of station one thinks about a lot. For one thing, it’s situated near the Eastern end of Hong Kong Island, an area where almost everything is residential and old. If a tourist happens to find themselves in Sai Wan Ho, they have made a mistake: there is nothing to see here, unless said tourist happens to be abnormally interested in recycling stations. But it’s also on a line which has been relatively well-serviced by other means of transport, which simply doesn’t need that much development. It’s just there. Not a bad station, but not particularly interesting either.
This is the problem with the Island line: when it came along in the mid-1980s, it was slotted into an area that already had a very good transport network, with buses, minibuses and trams all crowding around the precinct. Of course, buses and trams had always served Hong Kong Island, and the former had also served Kowloon before the MTR came along, but this felt different. The presence of a double-decker tram, chugging leisurely along the crowded streets of the Island, seemed to signify that there was no real use for such a fast method of transit. Here things were done slowly, had no truck with the frenetic pace of things across the Harbour. For the first time since 1979, a metro line stuck out, instead of being a natural fit into its surrounding landscape.
That shows in more ways than just the history. The first thing that a passenger notices when they take a train on the Island line is how different the platforms look: whereas most MTR stations have island platforms, either side giving you a train to catch, this one seems like an extension of the tunnel: the platform is narrow and curves away from you, as if it’s trying to wriggle its way through the station itself. And then there’s the curved walls, which slope upwards and over the passengers’ heads before disappearing into the darkness of the canopies, decorated adorably with calligraphy that proclaims the station’s name in large Chinese characters. (The eighties had a notorious penchant for overblown designs, but this is the one thing from that era that I will defend to the death. The aesthetics work out really, really well.)
All of this, I am told, is done because there wasn’t enough room to fit two platforms on either side. Hong Kong Island had been developed for almost 150 years by then, and by now the thin sliver of land between Victoria Harbour and the hills to the south had been completely built over. The place was laid with cramped streets and tenements, then overlaid with a stonking great highway that seemed to take people everywhere very quickly. In the middle of all this, there wasn’t really much room to fit a metro line in: dig too wide, and you risked collapsing a nearby building. So everything here is different: most of the stations in the ISL’s underground section have arrangements like this one, two platforms stacked on top of each other. Entrances along this particular line are tucked into the sides of buildings, instead of having their own structure, and the walls here are, as previously mentioned, more curved and narrower than anything you’ll find on the system. And very, very quaint it looks, too.
Perhaps it’s the uniqueness that fools you, but you never feel the lack of space. Yes I realise that there are fewer people here cause it’s a backwater that nobody ever goes to, but even with people here, it’s still pretty impressive how much room there seems to be. When the train has left and you’re the only left on the platform, you notice just how much your footsteps echo through the vast halls: nothing but the distant rumble of trains under or above you, and sometimes not even that. All of a sudden you notice more of the details: the little breaks in the wall panels, for instance, or the more traditional tiles underneath them. You notice how smooth the curves are: even when they’re heading into the concourse, some of the passages don’t run straight. They sway away from you like the gentlest samba. They weave their way into the distance. It isn’t groundbreaking design — we’ll come to THAT in our next piece — but it’s pretty neat.
We head up to the concourse. Looking at the décor in between, you’d never think that there WAS any shortage of space: the staircases are wide enough to shoot a movie in, as are the escalators. The sound of machinery clunks steadily, bereft of people to actually take upstairs. Then a voice breaks the silence overhead, announcing the arrival of the train to Kennedy Town on Platform 2. The hallways are crowded with people in a flash, their faces painted the most imperceptible sunshine orange by the light and the walls. Barely a minute passes, and they’ve all gone. The place is silent once more. Nobody but us down here in the bowels of the earth.
There’s only one way to go here, and that’s up. Turn into the concourse, ridiculously low-rise, minimalistic to a point. Only four turnstiles and a control room, both pitifully tiny. Pass through the turnstiles, and we are faced once again with the agony of choice: two exits, one in front of the other. Let’s pick exit A: “Felicity Garden” sounds like a good place to visit. Climb the few steps to the surface, and our senses are assaulted by this wave of city noise, buses, people, vendors, all squealing and shouting in our faces. Turn left, walk about ten paces, go round the corner, and what’s this? Exit B? We poke our heads round the corner to confirm it: yes, that’s exit A sitting only a dozen feet away from us. They might as well be the same exit: picking the wrong one inconveniences your journey for at most twenty seconds.
And here we get to the crux of the entire line. Hong Kong is a dense place: we’re ranked 4th in the world in terms of population density, but when you take away the two-thirds of our land still lying undeveloped, we zoom to the top of the list, outstripping our fellow SAR Macao. We live in tall, high-rise buildings that are tightly-packed and sometimes uncomfortable. As goes our housing, so goes our transport: here on Hong Kong Island, most of the MTR stations are miniscule in nature, with about half of the stations’ having exits that cover less than two city blocks. Sai Wan Ho’s just the worst offender. (There are some exceptions, but that’s what they are — exceptions.) This strikes me as a flagrant violation of metro-building codes: a metro system is meant to ease commuting for its passengers, right? One of the ways it can do that is to have exits that spread far and wide, that save the commuter from having to follow the geometry of the streets, or having to brave the elements when it’s pissing it down. And yet here we have a station which slaps two exits within a dozen paces of each other, while places slightly farther afield, like the community of Hing Tung Estate a few hundred metres to the south, have been left out. Wasting money on a second exit in what is practically the exact same spot seems a bit egregious.
To be fair, this is not a Hong Kong-exclusive problem — the London Underground does it all the time — but that doesn’t mean one should let the matter rest. Paris or Berlin have multiple stations which have exits right next to each other. It seems self-defeating, but I think that helps people get places faster: everyone has access to even more transport options, and don’t have to for instance travel one stop or walk long distances just to get another train. And again: this is especially easy to achieve on the hilly terrain of Hong Kong Island, where everyone’s definitely in need of better transport. That Sai Wan Ho and the Island Line in general don’t expand their catchment area to attract more passengers is just weird.
But perhaps I’m too worked up about these things. After all, this is just a metro system, and there’s no need to get all puritanical about these things even if you’re writing twelve long pieces on them. A breath of fresh air, a change of perspective, is necessary. Maybe we should stand here and watch the streets for a bit. This one we’re on now, Sai Wan Ho Street, this looks unprepossessing, but it’s still the main street of this neighbourhood. The shops here aren’t the prestigious stores or the glitzy franchises that you might see in the west of the island: these are just small-scale shops for the community, pots and pans and dentistry. A crisp ring of a bell draws our attention to the double-decker tram rolling by. This slow, soporific mode of transport has been here since 1904, calmly transporting passengers with too much time on their hands across the breadth of the Island. The mere existence of this tram is a paradox: even in this city which thrives on transactions being made and projects being finished in the blink of an eye, there will still be room for sluggish commutes like these. (I have a lot of affection for it, but it’s only really for when you have a lot of time on your hands — any trip you take on the tram takes half the time on the MTR, and who doesn’t like to go underground?)
It’s at times like these you have to wonder: could this line have done any better? I don’t think that building a railway here was a mistake: if you build a railway station, passengers will come. But the ISL represents the MTR’s first mediocrity, the first time the authorities built a station for the sake of one: yes it helped connect the dots for passengers as usual, but there were a few more duds in between the really successful ones. Among the original 14 stations of the line, there are quite a few stations which feel half-arsed: Fortress Hill, Quarry Bay, Chai Wan. It’s almost like when it came to designing line number three, the people in charge gave up and had a tea break. Or maybe they had a look at the transport network here, decided it was already quite advanced, and thought it wasn’t worth it. And then had a tea break.
The things is: Sai Wan Ho does not feel like it needs a metro station. It feels like it has everything it needs: a close-knit community, a pleasant harbourfront (the likes of which are always seen in films like Johnny English Reborn) and a decent transport system. In that context, a metro station would drag this place, kicking and screaming, into the metropolitanism of its more affluent neighbours. It fails to do so, instead content to squat in its little corner, haughtily watching the world and making passengers come to it instead.
For the sake of completion, we walk past exit B and soldier on, ignoring the Civic Centre to our left. (One summer a decade ago, I came here every day to play the lead role in a children’s opera. I wasn’t telling the whole truth when I said I picked this station randomly.) Turning into Holy Cross Path, we can confirm that yes, here is a lift that goes back down to the concourse. And having seen that, we have exhausted all the pleasures of Sai Wan Ho station, so let’s go back downstairs.
It seems wrong to finish this article on such an abrupt note, however, so let us linger for a little longer here in the concourse. There isn’t a lot left to admire, though the Wikipedia page for the station waxes lyrical about the hidden usefulness of the station: “this is a structurally complex station”, it raves. “It has five basement levels, and (insert names of five different utilities) are built upon it. These basement structures provide support for the residences and Civic Centre above.” All very interesting, no doubt, but this makes it sound like the station is important because of its utility. As I hope the previous 2300 words show, this station has very little to do with that particular aspect, for as a rapid transit station it is a pathetic excuse, in need of serious expansion. When I declare this station interesting and significant — which I do, however reluctantly and however slightly — I do not think it so because it is useful, or miniscule, or any of the points I have listed in the rant above. It is in spite of this that the station still makes itself amusing, perhaps even beautiful: I like the soft earthy tones it shows, I like the curvy platform, and I like the silence which pervades it from time to time. All these have nothing to do with practicality: it’s just something I find vaguely pleasing to the eye.
This, then, is perhaps the most interesting point about Sai Wan Ho station. It offers tepid results in the realm of usefulness, and is only marginally better at aesthetics. And yet in an over-saturated market, in a community that it barely serves, it still belongs. It still draws passengers and pretentious thinkpiece writers who cannot think of ways to end their blogposts. It allows us to ponder the contradictions of serviceability and existence, it offers a pleasant diversion for a few short moments. It is interesting, let us conclude, simply by being there.
And now, we have truly done everything there is to do at this damp splat of a station. Let us depart, in search of some real beauty.
Next time: the Tung Chung Line revolutionizes the city’s concepts of what a metro line should look like.