Peak Tram History
The History of the Peak Tram, Hong Kong
Arriving at The Peak Tram clutching our passes we were invited to ‘jump’ the queue gathered across the road (approximately a two hour wait), the group queue all up the hill as far as we could see and settled in the main hall. We still had to wait just over half an hour which gave me time to photograph the exhibits and old engine parts.
An early 20th-century view of the Metropolitan-Vickers iron foundry located on the Trafford Park Estate, Manchester. Given the large scale of the works, the foundry was able to cast parts for other companies as well.
The Haulage Room circa 1930. On the right is the 4.5-ton flywheel which took over two hours to come to a complete stop once the power had been switched off. Throughout its history, the haulage room for The Peak Tram has been located in the upper terminus building. From 1888 until 1926, the system was operated by a steam-powered winding engine. Its impressive 3.5-metre drums hauled a steel rope along cable rollers installed between the main rails just above the track bed. Although it is not known with certainty who supplied the original engine, it is possible that it was constructed locally by one of Hong Kong’s shipbuilding firms, with the enormous winding gears sent from the United Kingdom.
The operation of the tramcars relied on close communication between the brakeman riding aboard the carriage, and a controller located in the haulage room of the Peak terminus. Through a combination of bell signals sent from the tram, the controller adjusted the power input which wound and unwound the 1,500 metres of steel rope. Sliding metal arrows on an indicator board in front of him showed the exact position of the two cars at all times. As the twin drums turned in unison, the counterbalanced tramcars started and stopped simultaneously, crossing each other at exactly the same location on every trip. While the system worked flawlessly, Hong Kong’s climate added an unexpected twist that continues to affect its operation. With changing seasonal temperatures, the steel cable expands and contracts, varying the exact position of the carriage stop by up to a metre on any given day.
In 1873, reaching The Peak was wholly dependent on the use of a sedan chair. With the commencement of service on the 30th of May 1888, the Peak Tram became the first cable funicular in Asia. Nowadays, The Peak Tram is applying microprocessor-control technology and it carries 120 passengers per tramcar.
Travel by Sedan Chair: The first routes to the Peak were created by grass-cutters making the climb on foot. While some intrepid souls occasionally attempted to ascend on horseback, most of the paths were too steep and narrow to warrant the risk, and Hong Kong’s climate as a whole did not really favour the keeping of horses. This lack of easy conveyance led to a rapid growth in the use of sedan chairs. While public chairs consisted of little more than an enclosed seat suspended between two poles, among the gentry considerable pride was taken in owning a more luxurious rig. The Governor’s sedan could be fully curtained during inclement weather and was borne by eight servants sporting bright red uniforms with tasselled hats. In the 1880s, chair fares to the hill district cost 75 cents per hour or $4 for the day. Although perhaps less than comfortable for those who actually used them, the sedan chair became a vivid symbol of early life in Hong Kong. Their obvious novelty among curious viewers half a world away provided artists and photographers with ongoing opportunities to feature them in imaginative posters, advertising and newly stereoscopic cards.
The long queue with display cases to the right.
A group of Hong Kong businessmen from Ray and Company – circa 1865.
Afternoon tea at the Holyoak residence, Hong Kong – circa 1900.
Fashions of the Day: Late 19th-century Hong Kong was no stranger to fashion. With the constant influx of residents arriving from the continent and a capable workforce of tailors, European clothing style remained very up to date. Hong Kong’s summers brought a natural preference for lighter fabrics. Cotton and linen ‘tea’ dresses, or lawn dresses were especially popular for western women who regularly met to play cards and discuss the pleasantries of the day. For more formal visits, a well-tailored ‘carriage dress’ with separate bodice and skirt was required. Made of satin or silk with cut velvet trims, they were tightly fitted at the waist and bosom but amply cut at the hem to create a full, curvaceous silhouette.
Styles for western men consisted of either a dark-coloured morning coat or straight ‘sack’ suit. However, in a nod to fashions abroad, lively patterned waistcoats became popular, offsetting this otherwise sombre attire. Often made of fine Chinese silk, the waistcoat was an essential part of a gentleman’s wardrobe and was only dispensed with by those doing heavy manual labour.
During the same period, Chinese merchants and administrators generally opted for a dark-coloured ma gua, or jacket, worn over a long, full-sleeved robe, known as a chang shan. These were made of cotton or brocade depending on one’s status.
Handsewn cloth shoes and a silk cap completed the wardrobe. Men throughout China also wore a hair braid known as a queue. Originally a symbol of subservience to China’s Manchu rulers, the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 brought an end to the practise with Hong Kong men shedding them almost overnight.
Fashion, an advertisement of the time showing a harbour with no tall buildings at all and a tram came in and absorbed half the current queue, ten more minutes to wait.
The first Peak Tram ran on the 30th of May 1888. A view of the tram line soon after completion taken by general contractor Mr Sun Shing. There is a noticeable lack of neighbouring buildings or other construction in the area.
The Early Ticketing System: From an early date, the Hong Kong High Level Tramways Company used a formalised ticketing process known as the Bell Punch. Established in London in 1878, the Bell Punch Company Limited acquired the patent rights to hand-held ticket punch from America that had already been adopted by London Tramways as well as other transportation systems in Glasgow and Liverpool. By the time The Peak Tram introduced this method, the shape of the punch had been redesigned, becoming known as the box or breast punch. This idea was well received among conductors as it could be attached to a leather strap and worn across the chest, leaving the conductor’s hands free for issuing tickets and giving change. Fundamental to its name and its enduring popularity among passengers was the cheerful sounding bell that chimed when the ticket was inserted and validated.
At the start of each shift, a conductor was issued with a wooden ticket rack filled with stacks of pre-counted tickets arranged by fare type. In 1888, an uphill journey in the first class section cost 30 cents while the downhill was 15 cents. By 1945, this had risen to 60 cents for an uphill ride and 10 cents for every dog. Soldiers and workers enjoyed discounted fares but were seated in second and third class rows.
In addition to its convenience, the Bell Punch was tamperproof and simplified the accounting process. At the end of each shift, the ticket rack, cash bag and Bell Punch were handed to a supervisor who would balance the remaining number of tickets with the counter inside the punch. Accessing the counter was only possible by piercing a thin paper seal mounted inside the machine. Once closed, the punch could not be opened, or the counter reset, without breaking the seal. In this way, accurate records were kept and honesty prevailed.
Life at the Peak: By 1888, Hong Kong’s population had reached 173,475 with some 30-40 families calling The Peak their home. The Peak Hotel had opened in 1873 and was attracting a clientele eager to escape the oppressive heat below. In preparation for the opening of the tram on the 30th of May, free rides were offered the day before. This unexpected opportunity attracted a sizeable crowd and stirred enough interest that, when the tram opened for regular service the following day, more than 600 passengers gathered to wait their turn to the top.
The tram’s novelty was part of a wider 19th-century fascination with all things mechanised, exotic and new. As individual travel became more widespread, trains and trams, were immortalised in the music and advertising of the period. Salons were hosted that offered that offered opportunities to hear personal accounts of adventurous exploits, often accompanied by magic lantern slides.
Within the first year of operation, the tram had carried as many as 150,000 passengers. Hong Kong’s residents were quick to use this new amenity, spurring a building boom and ushering in a new pastime of leisurely picnics at the Peak.
A Playful Passion: Perhaps no other types of toys have matched the widespread popularity of trams, trains and trolleys. For most cultures they represent the first forms of motorised transportation. Since their appearance in the early 19th century, such toys have captured the hearts of generations of children and adults alike. While many models have been reproduced commercially in materials ranging from cast iron, pressed tinplate and printed paper on wood, individual craftsmen have also enjoyed the challenge of building their own special versions. Gathered here are examples of commercially manufactured trolleys and trams, as well as many made by hand. Whether cut from scrap metal in a rural Mexican village, or glued together from cardboard during America’s depression years, interest in rail vehicles has never waned. Over the years, Hong Kong’s Peak and Peak Tram have been reproduced in a great variety of entertaining forms. From jigsaw puzzles, books and board games, to Viewmaster disks and even playing cards, this ongoing presence of the tram in popular culture has helped remind us of its role in the city’s history and is a fitting tribute to Asia’s oldest funicular tramway. Indeed, at the top we saw many exquisite models (big price tag) down to tiny plastic keyrings.
The construction of the original Peak Tower began in 1971 and it has since gone through a number of reincarnations. Housing the upper terminus of the Peak Tram, The Peak Tower is situated in Victoria Gap, a dip along the line of the hills at an elevation of 396 metres. It was first unveiled to the public on the 29th of August 1972.
In 1993, The Peak Tower underwent a HK$500-million redevelopment into a new retail and entertainment complex, designed by renowned British architect Terry Farrell. It was officially opened to the public in May 1997 with a number of top attractions, including Ripley’s Odditorium and Mini Motion Theatre.
Work on the revitalisation of The Peak Tower began in March 2005. This extensive program has transformed The Peak Tower as an essential leisure destination offering great variety of dining, specialty shopping and interactive entertainment for Hong Kong residents and tourists alike. Located on the roof of The Peak Tower, the Sky Terrace 428 standing at 428 metres above sea level is the highest viewing terrace in Hong Kong offering a stunning 360-degree panoramic views.
We finally got to stand near the track and then our tram arrived.
Both the cars were full in a couple of minutes. Each tramcar can hold 95 seated and 25 standing passengers.
Building site to our left.
The steepest part of our five minute journey felt like the climb on a rollercoaster. The maximum steepness is 48% with track gradient between four and twenty seven degrees.
At the top Bear posed with our chariot and we looked down the track.
The escalators inside.
Loads of work ongoing outside. The Pok Fu Lam Reservoir in the background. Lamma Island far left in the mist. Hiking trails to the right.
Below, we could see a 1956 tramcar, now a visitor attraction. We headed for the roof view.
Some of The Peak properties we could see from the rooftop.
A quote from South China Morning Post dated August 2014: Ignoring the Hong Kong government’s attempt to rein in home prices, Sun Hung Kai Properties (SHKP) is offering a super-deluxe house on The Peak for HK$175,735 per square foot. If it fetches that amount, it will be the world’s most expensive home in terms of price per square foot. SHKP released the price of the 12 houses at Twelve Peaks in 12 Mount Kellett Road on Wednesday night, with the priciest, No 1, going for HK$819.1 million.
If people completed in one hundred and fifty days they received a three per cent discount.................
We bimbled around on the roof observation level and at the far side looked down as a tram headed down the hill and disappeared around the bend. About seventeen thousand people use the service every day. We enjoyed a picnic, took in the views, then took the escalator to each floor to look in many of the shops. A candy bar (doing a thriving business) sold flying saucers. I hadn’t eaten this sherbet treat in years and Bear picked a bag up. Just a few ounces at seven pounds I asked that they be returned from whence they came.......
When it was time to go we joined the very long queue, at one point we thought about walking down but waited it out and after forty-five minutes we were ushered in to the platform area, here we watched the steel rope moving up and down on rollers. The tram arrived and we settled in the back row of an equally crowded tramcar as the one on the uphill journey.
Going backwards meant we were actually at the front but facing the wrong way. I stood and swiveled on the spot and save for one person standing in the way had a good view of the track and managed to take a video as we passed the uphill tramcar at The Passing Loop.
A steeper bit. Once at the bottom another measured dose were ready to board. And finally......
..........Victoria Harbour 1952, us and the harbour view today.
ALL IN ALL SUCH A GOOD EXPERIENCE
CROWDED BUT SO MUCH FUN