A few weeks ago, I paid tribute to a classic mode of Hong Kong transport – the tram. Dinging its way across the island for over a hundred years. A national institution, if you will. Unfortunately, I rarely take the tram. I don’t live on any of its routes and, such is its snail-like nature, even if I’m going somewhere sufficiently trammed-up, l’d probably just take the train. Yes, my day-to-day life is much more influenced by an even humbler, earthier mode of HK transport… The minibus.
Above, you can see them lined up in Mong Kok, ready for action. Limited to sixteen passengers, they come in two colours, green and red, and on an average day I might take one of each. One to, and one from, work. Minibus-ing isn’t something you enter in to lightly. Oh no. While trams are something of a museum piece, politely indulged but not particularly useful, minibuses are a growling, honking, swerving embodiment of modern Hong Kong, used by tens of thousands of people every day.
Every morning, I take the green 28K minibus, which shoots between Sha Tin and Tai Po. Green minibuses are a kind of gateway drug: a thrill; but a thrill diluted by timetables, regulated stops, seat-belts and such like. In the afternoon, if I can (i.e. if it shows up), I take a red minibus home to Kowloon. Red minibuses are a full-on hit of adrenaline: no seat-belts, no defined route, no quarter given.
Set the scene: you frantically wave the minibus down and think you’re being ignored until it slams to a halt at the last second. You’ll probably have to squeeze over a middle aged woman and her shopping just to get a seat. The driver will categorically not wait until you’ve sat down before slamming the accelerator to the floor. When you move off the scene will be something like the picture above: Hong Kong shooting by in a blur, the old man in front of you (wobbly from his sixth Blue Ice beer of the afternoon) clutching the railing for dear life, the digital speedometer threatening to hit 80 kmph and set off the maximum speed alarm which will be completely ignored by the driver. You have to yell (in Cantonese preferably) when you want to get off, but there’s no guarantee that the driver will hear you over the roar of the engines and his intercom turned up to eleven. Even if he does hear you he might just deliver you a look of utter contempt in the rear view mirror. But it’s not just you – he (and it’s always a ‘he’) hates all his passengers equally. Payment is in cash only, no Octopus cards here, and woe betide you if you’ve only got a hundred or, oh sweet Jesus no!, a five hundred on you. You stumble off, even though the bus is till moving, and almost get caught in the doors as they slam shut.
You’re shaken, and carsick, but still home in half the time it would have taken you on a regular bus or the train. And you feel like you’ve experienced a side of Hong Kong, real every day Hong Kong, that a hundred trips on the tram or the MTR couldn’t show you. God bless the minibus.