Saturday, October 1, 2011

Commuting in Hong Kong

As of today I have been officially living and working in Hong Kong for one month! Since my start here the weeks have been so busy that already this month passed before I realized it, so it is about time that I continue my blog here.

Since the beginning of September I have been a regular Hong Kong commuter on the MTR. MTR? ... Yes, sorry for outsiders I mean Metro. MTR stands for mass transport railway, and is the name of the company that services the metro in Hong Kong. However, the word MTR is so commonly used that it replaced the word metro, so don't be surprised that if you ask about the "metro", most people don't understand what you are talking about.

The MTR railway system is operational since 1979 and currently includes more than 200 km of railway with about 150 stations. It is one of the most popular ways of transportation, as it is fast, efficient and convenient. On the main lines during the day, a new train arrives every 2 minutes(!) so there is no need to rush down when you see a metro waiting. The next one is always coming very soon.

That the MTR is one of the most popular ways of transportation became clear to me as soon as my first working day when I had to travel to work. After leaving my apartment I walked down to the MTR which is about 5 minutes away. Going down the MTR I noticed that it was not so busy as I was expecting. Only 3 or 4 people waiting for every entrance door. However, when the train arrived and the doors opened, a shiver was going through my spine... Inside there were so many people that there was hardly room for all those people inside, let alone for the rest that was waiting outside on the platform to go in.

A usual picture during the rush hour
Hoping for better luck I decided to wait for the next train, but this one was not different from the first, so I decided to follow the rest of the HK locals and push myself in until there was only 1 cm between me and the door which (fortunately) closed without grabbing me. I told myself I had to survive at least 6 stops (the station I needed to exit for my work), and luckily I did.

After a few mornings I concluded that the trains were busy every day, so I accepted the idea that I had no choice but to feel like a sardine in a can. (the one you can buy in the supermarket).

I also discovered that there are some "metro-rules" when taking an MTR journey;

Be quiet and focus only on yourself or your smartphone.

Nobody talks here during the morning ride except when somebody is called on his cell-phone (which is rarely the case in the morning). Besides that most of the people are making not any interaction with others. 90% uses their smartphone to entertain himself by watching online TV or playing games. The other 10% is reading the newspaper.

Get experienced with the amount of millimeters between you and the door that is closing.

This requires some exercise with you being almost ripped to pieces, but in the end you will learn how much space you need so you are still able to enter a train that is already too full.

Know your movement gestures if you want to exit the train.

Do this while the train is nearing your station, by turning around your face towards the door, so the people around will notice that you want to get out. Usually this is enough and when the door opens they will make some little space for you to exit. If that doesn't work, use the word "sorry" or "mh'goi" (the Cantonese for thank you)

Nobody talks with each other.
Everyone is focused on him/herself
No matter if some old lady is standing, if you are lucky to get a seat, you won't give it to anybody.

In Holland it is usual practice to give up your seat to the elderly or impaired. "Please madam, take my seat". However, in Hong Kong I have not seen anybody doing this. They are ignoring whatever is around them, even if an old lady is struggling to stay on her feet in the train.

When you take the elevator, stand on the right if you are standing still. 

People will get annoyed when you are standing still on the left side as this side is for people that are in a hurry, so make sure you follow this rule to avoid angry faces behind you.

Make yourself accustomed with the best locations in the train, and practice to get there before anybody else can.

There are some area's in the train which are the most convenient when you commute in those busy trains. The area's near the door give you the convenience of the back wall to lean against, and makes it easy to exit during rush hour. These locations are well protected by people, and whenever one comes free, you should act within a second, otherwise it is already taken by someone that has senior experience over you with this exercise. Bummer!

Once you get accustomed to the rules, the ever busy trains and the individuality, the Hong Kong MTR system is very convenient. I don't want to trade in my 20 minute MTR ride with the one hour car drive I had in the Netherlands!


  1. Sounds intense. Here's a question for you though - I've got some travel plans this spring, and was thinking of visiting Hong Kong with my folding bike. Any way I'm going to be allowed on a train with it? Or do they have rules about what you can/can't take on with you?

  2. Hi Chris,
    There is no official rule for bikes in the MTR, but I know they will allow you to take a bicicyle on most of the routes, outside rush hour, as long as you take off the front wheel. A folding bike should be no problem though.Have fun!

  3. Hi Chris,

    I do think that there are a lot of Hong Kong citizen giving up their chairs to the elderly / pregnant ladies or disables etc (It's also usual practice in HK). At least I saw a lot during my experience in MTR. Anyhow, enjoy the ride in MTR. There are a lot of strange and interesting things to check.

  4. Hi Estella,

    Yes fortunately there are still people who do that, but Compared to Europe I feel that HK still needs a long way to go. Luckily there are people that indeed do set a good example in the MTR!