In Between the Lines — Tung Chung Line/Tung Chung

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.

1998 — TUNG CHUNG LINE/Tung Chung
Commenced operations: 22 June 1998
Most recent extension: June 2005 (one planned for 2029)
Stations: 8 (2 unique)
Colour on map: orange

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Building a good metro system is one thing. Building a good-LOOKING metro system is another. By dint of being public utilities, metro systems and stations are not expected to look good: functionality always comes first. No commuter is going to care whether their local station is a bland box or an opulent crystal palace: it’s just a place where they get their train and go places, and they’re more likely to be worried about whether they’ll be five or ten minutes late rather than aesthetics. Even cities which are supposedly chic — Paris, Milan, Tokyo — fail miserably when it comes to station architecture, opting for blank expanses that only make a commute even more boring than it has to be.

But suppose you want to spruce up your system. Suppose you decide that your commuters deserve more than just a coffin of iron and concrete. Since the 1990s, there’s been a push for better-looking Metro stations: bright, airy environs that don’t just stand out for the average commuter, but are an actual delight to dwell in. Leading the charge is, of all people, the supposedly uptight and functional Germans — almost every new metro station constructed since reunification has been exemplary, simple and ventilated yet amazing to behold. (Getting off-topic a bit, but my absolute favourite of these is Munich’s Westfriedhof station. Show me anything better, and I’ll shake your hand.)

Here in Hong Kong, however, we were less concerned with that kind of thing. The first three lines were built during the 1970s and 1980s, in a construction blitz that focused on getting as many people underground as possible. That meant that the stations here were modest and uniform affairs: mono- or duochrome tiling, unobtrusive exits jutting out of the ground or built into buildings. When they tried something new, it was out of necessity: the curved walls of some Island line stations were, as previously mentioned, simply to prevent the whole street from caving in. It looked unique, yes, but it was just variations on a theme.

But times were changing. The 1997 handover was in place, and everybody was full of unbounded optimism. Perhaps because of that, architecture around Hong Kong began to change, becoming more sleek and less aloof: when the Bank of China and HSBC Towers were built in the late 80s, they cut a figure across the city’s skyline, blinding the city with its steel and glass. The planned new airport at Chek Lap Kok would be like that as well: designed by Norman Foster, it would be a completely modern affair, a structure that was bright, airy and spacey. Across a narrow channel of water, a new suburb was springing up opposite the Airport too: Tung Chung would be the first suburb on the previously barren north side of Lantau Island. It was going to be a very, very big project that dragged Hong Kong kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And all of this development, obviously, needed a railway connection.

A twin set of railways were proposed: one for the incoming tourists, one for the residents opposite. Much of it was going to hug the coast, and everything — absolutely everything — was going to be new: the stations, the communities they served, even the land it was built on. (Almost all of the original stations for this line were built on reclaimed land.) All that newness paid off: when the two lines opened in the summer of 1998, they were complete bombshells. The line to the Airport is brilliant, and I’ll be talking about that one next time. But it pales in comparison to its more bourgeois sibling, because the Tung Chung line (TCL) is the best thing the MTR Corporation, in its 45-year history, has ever, EVER built.

To see just how great this line is, let’s go on a trip: a long, LONG trip. There were a lot of candidates for this particular thinkpiece: almost every station has its own story to tell on this line, and I almost ended up picking Olympic station, which is closer to my place and is adorably quaint on its own. But when you’re on the TCL, you want to go farther. And so: let’s go further — to the ends of the earth, in fact.

The first thing you notice about the Tung Chung line is how unimaginably fast you are. Most trains on the MTR travel at respectable speeds of around 70-80 km/h — hardly a snail’s pace. But on the TCL, the trains (which are grey and look something like a bullet) can rocket up to 135. To put that in perspective, that’s a full 25 faster than any car is allowed to drive in Hong Kong, a fact we know because we can see it in action: a highway runs parallel to the line in between Sunny Bay and Tung Chung. Imagine being on a motorway, and looking up from your phone to see that you’re being overtaken by a TRAIN. Imagine, if you will, the accompanying humiliation.

Should the sight of bus passengers and car drivers gnashing their teeth prove too base an entertainment for you, however, there is always the sea and the sky. Very little of the Tung Chung line is underground: poking out of the gloom just south of Olympic station, it hugs the coast as it travels northwest, criss-crossing itself and other lines through a confusion of bridges that ascend and descend almost imperceptibly. Almost, I say: there is a slight bump as you travel upwards, and the speed of the whole thing makes it feel like no less than taking flight. And just when you’re getting used to this feeling, the blue hues of the sea rush up to meet you as you flash through the Container Terminals and the Rambler Channel next door. There’s even a bit where you pass THROUGH the Tsing Ma Bridge, and it’s almost impossible to put into words the feeling of wonder you get as you spot through the iron grilles the swooping ironwork of Hong Kong’s most famous bridge above, and the lapping whitecapped waves far below.

I’d love to write 3000 words just on how exhilarating a ride on the TCL is, but that’s not my point for today. So as we arrive at Tung Chung, let us instead focus on the beauty of the platforms themselves: smooth, vibrant livery. Columns of polished marble, a far cry from the dull tiles you find on the major urban lines. It’s brighter, too: gone is the moody lighting that featured heavily in the stations back in Kowloon. Instead, everything here is clearly illuminated, every bit of the station plain for all to see. The doors open: a forceful crash that makes the uninitiated snap to attention, a world away from the genteel (some would say impotent) slither of the urban trains. It’s a whole other ball game here on the TCL, and it never lets you forget it.

We exit onto the platforms. Now that we’re not separated by two layers of glass (oh BTW, the TCL invented platform screen doors for Hong Kong), we can see the station panelling more clearly: slabs of deep, shocking violet, in violent contrast with the white lights illuminating the curved ceiling above. We’ve seen colours just as vibrant before, of course: the sunshine orange of Lai Chi Kok, the passionate crimson of Tai Koo, even the earthy tones of Sai Wan Ho. But the tiles and the lighting always made it seem somewhat subdued, as if the designers were afraid of being too ostentatious. Tung Chung station, however, presents no such conundrum: whenever I arrive at Tung Chung, I’m struck by just how over-the-top the station livery is. Nobody uses that shade of purple unless they’re grape enthusiasts, but it’s EVERYWHERE here. Sometimes I wonder: is this too much? Does this look bad for the station? But I reckon that any station that dares use that colour so liberally deserves a mention, at least.

The passengers around us push towards the escalators at either end, and we do not resist: the flow of people here is always astonishingly high for some reason, and to go against them is a fool’s errand. Slowly we rise through the layers of rock. There’s a brief dimming of the lights, as if we’re going through our own tunnel on our way to the surface. Then the tunnel begins to glow, brighter and brighter, until suddenly we’re above ground and breathing in the fresh, clean air of Tung Chung.

This is not your average MTR station concourse. For one thing, it’s far too showy. After all, most MTR stations are a simple affair, held up by a dizzying array of pillars and girders that remain out of sight, tucked away inside layers of concrete and tiling. Yet this station flies in the complete opposite direction: everywhere you look, you see the concrete pillars holding up the station, striking masses of grey that just happen to also hold up the ceiling. I wonder how many people smacked their heads on the concrete before they surrounded them with white metal guards — they stand proudly in the concourse, with no regard to any commuter who might be trying to get here or there. It’s a measure of how bold it is that I don’t mind it much: it’s more something to manoeuvre your way around, rather than something that gets in the way.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t really bother me. Perhaps it’s just that I grew up with this kind of architecture: I lived close to various stops on the TCL when I was young, and maybe that modernist style seared itself into my brain. Or it might just be that concrete and glass have been the norm for station design since the 1990s, and as that photo above tells us, showing your work is very sexy in the architectural world these days. But I like to Ockham’s razor it and suggest it’s simply because of the sunlight streaming everywhere. Even in the corners where there isn’t a glass canopy, you can still see sunbeams and brightness and the shadows it creates, refracted at carefully calculated angles, and it looks wonderful, not at all claustrophobic. We need that in our stations these days.

And on the subject of glass — we stop in front of exits A and B, and look up. And here’s my favourite part of the station: artwork hanging far above our heads, a series of glassy pieces that mean absolutely nothing. The meaninglessness of the whole thing doesn’t matter, what does is the absolute beauty of it all. So often you see in MTR stations lumps of plastic that look like colourful little turds that the artist made in a half-hour sitting; here the artwork actually looks like something, provokes my thoughts into being. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come here, tilted my head, and seen that beautiful tinting of the sunbeams filtering into the station. These aren’t just art installations, they’re stained-glass windows in a modern cathedral. Surely the only thing to do in response is to lift up our heads in praise of commuting beauty. (Like any good cathedral, this one provides its own source of life too — in the corner of exit D, we find a water dispenser for passengers to refill their bottles. No, not a vending machine: an actual fount of water. Do you know how rare that is on the MTR these days?)

But enough about the station structure. All good works of art must have their context taken into account, and this station — yes, it IS art — is no exception. Let’s start with the more unglamorous bits: going past the drinking machine and into the late afternoon sun, we’re met with a series of blue taxis. If you happen to be a tourist, then take a picture: there are only 75 of these in Hong Kong, and chances are you’ve got 10 or 12% of them lined up in front of you right now. I’ve always found the blue taxis to be the prettiest type: the urban red feels too pedestrian and flashy, the New Territories’ green looks like somebody’s been sick all over. It’s this calming shade of sky blue, exclusive only to Lantau Island where we now find ourselves, that looks nice and pleasing, fitting the rustic nature of the entire island. Beyond that, we find a block of residential buildings: not much different from the ones we see in other places, but still quite at harmony with everything. Sometimes, they looked hideous, but thankfully the 90s were very good to design here in Hong Kong, so we got this instead.

We turn left and walk under the bridge. Cut through the transport interchange next door, trying hard not to get run over by the buses that seem to come out of unexpected places — I’ve been here like four times since it first opened, and yet the scale of it still boggles. It seems to have an endless number of exits, hosting an endless amount of buses and minibuses. Just like in Diamond Hill, it’s possible to come out of the station next door, hop on a form of transport, and go absolutely anywhere: buses here run to the Airport as well as the new cross-border HZM Bridge, bringing in flood upon flood of tourists and creating both massive income for the shops here and massive headaches for the locals. (Granted, you might have to make a couple of changes, but the locations on offer are truly impressive.) In the distance, the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car rises majestically in the background, guiding visitors towards a great big Buddha statue in the west and still the setting of the Hong Kong government’s second-greatest joke.

This station precinct feels different, is what I’m saying. In the past three pieces, I’ve concentrated on stations that fully represent the bustling metropolis that is Hong Kong: you can’t arrive at Diamond Hill, Admiralty, even Sai Wan Ho without feeling like you’re being thrust into the heart of things. And more often than not, those stations and their surroundings feel somewhat suffocating: closed ventilation, bland designs, tall buildings looming overhead. I’ve said that those are a microcosm of the high-pressure city that is Hong Kong, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here in Tung Chung, the buses rush by as usual, the buildings still soar as high. But there are slight tweaks to the formula that make these stations on the smaller, more suburban lines feel slightly different. The tall tower blocks don’t surround you. The buses are for the most part still single-decker. And the amenities look like actual, expansive things, rather than a half-arsed effort squeezed in between the skyscrapers. Everything just feels slower, more relaxed here.

My favourite example of this, though, comes when we turn the corner opposite the Cable Car Terminal and start heading back towards the station itself. Just across the plaza from the horseshoe shape of Tung Chung Crescent, there’s an empty granite square which passers-by all seem to give a wide berth — no wonder, for it has dozens of holes bored into it. While these things look like vaguely interesting manhole covers, they’re actually part of a huge fountain that shoots jets of water periodically into the air — and when there isn’t a worldwide pandemic going on, this water feature is gold, I tell you. If you ever have some time to spare at Tung Chung, you might, as I have many times, watch children splashing around in the fountain, excitedly chasing each other and occasionally getting splashed in the face when they look curiously into one of the vents. The screams of laughter and amazement soundtracked to classical music, the innocence on display as they look confusedly at their parents, has never not been a heart-warming thing to behold. It might just be the most wholesome thing you could ever associate with the MTR. Here is where the pace of life just slows, and you’re happy to just sit back and let time and people roll by while you watch them all unfold from the sidelines. You just don’t get that anywhere else on the network.

We have one final place to visit before we go. Head across and into the large shopping centre that looms high above us. Citygate Outlets is really just your average outlet commercial complex, nestled next to the MTR station just so any tourist with money to spare can have one final splurge. (It is also owned by the MTR Corporation, so this is all fair game in my mind.) With the number of tourists flooding in from the Bridge and the Airport, there’s been a few more normal shops here in recent years: they’ve had to construct a new, 8-floor annex just to make sure every good capitalist can have a piece of the action. We, however, are interested in the oldest section, so we’re literally leaving capitalism behind.

Ascend to the second floor, then walk through the hallways. I visited last during the third wave on the pandemic, and there were so few people around that it felt jarring: perhaps it’s what they mean when they say that the pandemic feels like a zombie apocalypse, emptying the world of life and laughter… anyway, we continue walking, and suddenly the ceiling gives way to a canopy, way, way higher up. I’ve made this analogy many times, but the effect is as if the ceiling has been pulled away from you to reveal the sky: your vision abruptly fills with lights, the sun feels like it’s invaded the mall. And walking towards the sides, we come across the ultimate expression of Tung Chung station. Yes, at first glance it looks disappointing: there is nothing beyond the glass but a wide-open highway and a sign with the word “Airport” emblazoned upon it. You can’t see the planes, and a lot of the time you can’t see any vehicles either. And that’s the point: it’s just a road towards the great unknown, and the bridge you’re standing on is the gateway. There’s no cars around — at least, if you’re (un)lucky enough to visit during a pandemic — and so it feels like a personal invitation, allowing you a glimpse at what could be, inviting you to set foot on that road as well. Everything that happens here is just between you and the big wide world.

And I think that might be why I love the TCL so much. Transport is so often a dull affair: you can go places, but they never feel actually promising. To go back to my original argument, too many metro stations feel like transitory places: a waiting room without character, without flair. But I feel stations shouldn’t BE like that: they should give you a sense of adventure, an idea of the journey ahead. Nobody likes wasting their time in waiting rooms — and sure, most of our commutes ARE basically boring trudges to and from an arbitrary place we’re forced to go. (Thinking about it, most of our urban stations are reflections of the journey ahead in that sense.) But I would argue that we don’t have to be have our noses rubbed against this particularly boring wall, that we deserve better when faced with the drudgery of our daily lives. As this metro line shows, it is perfectly possible for stations to be beautiful. For me, the Tung Chung line (and its sister line) is unique amongst the MTR stations in that it allowed us room to breathe, occasions to hope. It taught us that beauty was a way out, even when the city outside was chasing after ever-higher standards of functionality. And it taught us to stop and smell the roses, to appreciate life’s simpler pleasures. As we shall soon see, this beautiful illusion lasted only a handful of years: we grew accustomed to concrete boxes, we got tired of looking at the sun. But these beautiful examples still survive — will survive as long as our connections to the outside realm of possibility exists — and for that, I’m already grateful.

And now, we shall turn back, and head the way we came. But before that, let us look one last time through the crystalline glass. Take a deep breath, breathe in the dust of the open road, and stop to feel your soul expanding in the emptiness ahead.

Next time: just two weeks after the Tung Chung line opens, the Airport Express revolutionizes the way we think about geography.

2 thoughts on “In Between the Lines — Tung Chung Line/Tung Chung

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s