The Best Tram in the World

Detour tram

As the tram lurched past the dried seafood shops of Des Voeux Road, a cool breeze passing through its open windows, passengers were served a round of cocktails. “Do you reckon this is the best tram in the world at the moment?” asked one woman sipping an Old Fashioned. “I think so,” replied another.

Needless to say, this was no ordinary tram journey. For ten days last December, four of Hong Kong’s double-decker trams were made over for Detour, an annual art and design festival. One tram was converted into a classroom; another was transformed into a giant camera obscura; a maintenance tram became a mobile radio station and concert venue. The fourth was the Eatery tram, whose teak-framed upper deck was fashioned into a sleek dining hall, blond wood and brass railings bracketed by strips of soft LED lights.

“To make the space feel bigger, we removed all hand holds and rails that obstructed the line of vision, made all the tables and benches out of light-colored pine, painted the walls and ceilings white and put in light-colored wood veneer flooring,” says Billy Potts, who designed the interior with partners Albert Tong, Cara To and Sjors van Buyten.

Detour tram

Detour tram

First launched in 2004 as an satellite program for Business of Design Week, Detour became a festival in its own right in 2009, when it took over the abandoned Police Married Quarters for an extravaganza of design exhibitions, talks, music and film. The following year, it threw open the doors to the decrepit, 172-year-old Victoria Prison, drawing a crowd of 100,000 people over two weeks.

This year marked a change of strategy. “We’re trying to embrace the city, not just the art and culture community that already knows what we’re doing,” says Detour co-founder Alvin Yip. And the perfect vehicle for that turned out to be Hong Kong’s century-old tram system, which carries more than 200,000 passengers per day along the north shore of Hong Kong Island. Each of this year’s five exhibition sites were located along the tram line, and free tickets gave the public access to the special Detour trams, which featured performances by Cantopop stars and lectures on urban planning.

The invite-only Eatery tram played host not only to boozy dinner parties, but also free breakfast and afternoon tea for students, the elderly and groups from disadvantaged communities. Many of these guests were riding the tram for the first time; Yip says that in one class of 30 students from working-class Kwun Tong, only two had ever used the tram before. “That’s a sign there’s a problem of social mobility in Hong Kong,” he says. “It’s about moving up but also about moving around.”

Detour built connections in other ways, too. About 30 young designers were involved in the tram project, working side-by-side with engineers and craftsmen at the Whitty Street tram depot, where each one of Hong Kong’s 161 trams are designed and built by hand – a rarity in a city where almost everything is imported. “Our buses come from the UK, our trains from Australia, but the trams are truly made from scratch in Hong Kong,” says Yip.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Detour’s legacy is the way it has shed new light on underappreciated parts of Hong Kong. When it was first held at the Police Married Quarters in 2009, the historic building was slated for redevelopment. Thanks in part to Detour’s success, it is now being transformed into a design hub with shops, studios, a library, restaurants and a gallery. Yip hopes it will have a similar effect on the tram system, which suffered from years of neglect as maintenance was deferred and tram-only lanes abolished.

At the very least, the Eatery tram has a bright future: the tram company liked it so much it will keep it intact, along with the classroom tram. (The other two have returned to regular service.) “It really offers a unique experience,” says Hong Kong Tramways General Manager Emmanuel Vivant. “With a little bit more time and with a good restaurant partner we could make this even better.”

Detour tram

Former maintenance tram converted into a mobile radio station.
Photo courtesy Detour

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday March 25 2014at 05:03 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Interior Space, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments are closed.