Published on Nov 24, 2016 at Asia Times
Everyone in Hong Kong knows Ding Ding. It is a hundred-year-old tradition that the tram drivers use a double bell to warn pedestrians of their approach, and people simply dub this colonization-era heritage as Ding Ding. Operated on the 8-mile backbone of the Hong Kong Island, from Kennedy Town in the west to Shau Kei Wan in the east, Ding Ding rattles by the most important areas and tells its vicissitude of life.
When I moved to Hong Kong from China at the age of 17, I lived in the Western District. During the whole summer of citizenship application, I was trapped in Hong Kong—no ID, no passport, no nothing. My small room, in a 430 sq ft tenement shared with five strangers, was on the third floor of a shabby building. The flat resembled a barbell, a long corridor in the middle connecting bathroom and kitchen at one end and three bedrooms at the other. The living room was squeezed into a side of the corridor—a 25-inch square TV, cloaked in dust, rested on a shaky shelf; a full-loaded closet, whose door could hardly be closed, stood against the wall; a mahjong table occupied the center, surrounded by four stackable plastic chairs, leaving a half-person-wide space on four sides. A sardine can, I thought at first sight.
When the weather was pleasant, my flatmates would hang their clothes outside the shared window. However, when it rained, the clothes had to be moved into our mini corridor, only to make it even narrower. If the sunshine failed to show up for several days, the stench of lint and mold would linger in the air.
Even worse, I had no friends around, I could barely speak Cantonese and I had difficulty reading newspapers and books in traditional Chinese characters and typography. I looked at myself in the cracked mirror in bathroom, only to see a prisoner in an over-crowded city.
My room faced the busy Des Voeux Road. I made it a habit to wear earplugs, but I could still hear the tourists’ talk, the protestors’ shout, the roars of buses, and, occasionally, the revving of sports cars. Rising above the clamor, every now and then, there would be a clear and resonant sound—Ding Ding.
I was attracted to this little sound and later found that the tram went right under my window. Soon after the discovery, I had my first adventure with Ding Ding. I jumped on a tram in front of my home and began to head east.
It surprised me that the double-decker tram was still made of wood. It was also weird to see that passengers got on from the back and got off from the front. There was no A.C. even though it was very hot that day. The tram traveled at a leisurely pace; it felt like we were regressing rather than progressing in a city where no one walked, only galloped.
The lower deck was mainly taken by school children in uniform and their Southeast Asian nannies. I paid attention to their conversations in English, about today’s football game, about a bicycle trip, and about a declaration of war with frenemies. Two old ladies also stayed downstairs—I guess the spiral stairs were too demanding for them. On the upper deck, tourists holding their cameras formed a part of the scene. Local passengers were identifiable, I realized. Staring at a phone. Talking into a phone. Playing on a phone. Playing with a phone. Hong Kong people adored their phones. This was how they connected with the rest of their social life, but disconnected with the surroundings in real world.
I left the tram after several stops and walked back home, before my stomach protested against the hunger rising inside it. I enjoyed the exposure to my neighborhood. Outside my constricted room, there were so many wonders and unknowns. I craved more. The second day, I woke up early and prepared to join Ding Ding in its entire journey.
This time I directly mounted the second deck and sat in the front row, not only because I loved the breeze, but also because I felt as if I were the driver, taking complete control of navigation. Leaving my own region, the tram soon entered the famous Dried Seafood Street in Sheung Wan. Dried seafood is an indispensable ingredient in Chinese cooking, and in Hong Kong, some 200 shops gather in this section. Right in front of the stores, the most popular products were displayed in grid boxes: salted fish, black moss, dried snakeskin, dried sausage, dried sea cucumber and abalone. As I grew up in coastal area, the smell of sea satisfied my yearning for a sense of home. I saw a housewife picking her favorite dried food, bargaining with the store owner and leaving with all the heavy bags in her arms. Maybe that night, these ingredients would show up on the dining table, as long-boiled soups, as fresh stir-fries, as steamed dishes, warming the body and heart of a daughter returning late. For the first time, I felt less like a lonely alien.
After Sheung Wan, Ding Ding moved towards Central. To the north I saw the Former Legislative Council Building with Lady Justice on the rooftop, eyes blindfolded, balance and sword in hand; to the south, the first modernized building HSBC and later the iconic triangle-ensemble Bank of China. I thought this combination best illustrated two core treasures of Hong Kong: rule of law and money. However, I didn’t predict that in the same location, a year later, hundreds of thousands of citizens would paralyze the key veins of this financial center to strike for universal suffrage. Money matters, but law surpasses it.
The tram continued to sing when leaving for the eastern part of the island, where many new residential estates were located. Buildings decreased in size. Up and down, I captured a bell-shape skyline of the Hong Kong Island in two hours.
Ding Ding soon became my favorite way to explore the city. I would always get on a tram to visit wherever it went to or just stay onboard as long as I wanted. Little by little, I could recognize all the buildings beside the route. I got off at certain places and went around by foot. I got lost several times, but Ding Ding was like my compass. Whenever I found the tram, I could find the way home. My understanding of Hong Kong increased day by day, and my attachment to it also grew.
In December 2014, the city built the subway out to the Western District. The creaky, slow and obsolete tram paled in comparison to the new, fast, and extensive subway. The tramways became less functional, some people proposed to shut it down. Nonetheless, Ding Ding was preserved after several rounds of debates in the government, as a representation of Hong Kong and its people: their respect for history, proudness of prosperity, appreciation towards peacefulness and praise for diversity.
I went to college in the same year, away from the familiar Ding Ding sound and the tram that first introduced me to my new home. I seized a chance to revisit Ding Ding four months ago, right before I left for studying abroad. That day, my boyfriend came to the island to meet me. It was his first time on Ding Ding, so I took up the role of tour guide. When we were on the way, I told him all the stories about me and Hong Kong—my affection for the tram and the city rekindled.
“Can we take Ding Ding to our wedding dinner?” I asked, imagination unrestrained, “I want to share my happiness with everyone.”
“No,” he responded after a pause, apparently amused by my unrealistic idea, “It is way too slow. We will probably be late to our own wedding.”
Persuasive as he was, I still sunk into my daydream of an ongoing wedding ceremony full of flustered guests, while the groom and bride continued wandering around the entire metropolis on Ding Ding, in no rush.