Letter from London|Traffic Tribulations

2021.05.08

Frank Wilson

On returning to London from Hong Kong some twenty years ago, and having been away in Asia for a similar length of time, I had to relearn a few conventions of life. For example, office chat, centring on the TV programmes and politics of the day, was alien to me. The public transport system, particularly the London Underground and rail system, seemed grubby and inefficient compared to Hong Kong. I also had to adapt to different driving norms. I had to re-acclimatise to motorway driving, which seemed so much faster and riskier than I remembered. Suburban London traffic also flowed much faster, most of the time, than in Hong Kong, though drivers were generally much more courteous. People actually let you into a queue if you were trying to enter from a side street! People waved their thanks if you allowed them to precede you. I had to temper my ingrained Hong Kong driving instinct to nose aggressively in front of rivals to gain any advantage possible.

Nevertheless, the traffic system and driving habits did improve greatly over the two decades I lived there. On first arrival, back in the late seventies, the roads seemed cacophonous torrent of chaos and noise. Cars, ramshackle lorries, groaning buses, screeching trams, psychotic minibuses and motorbikes jostled for space, using their horns with abandon. In between, rickshaws and old ladies pushing large barrows wove their way through the turmoil, apparently dicing with death. It was an alarming scene and very hard to cross the road safely. Once you had attuned to the anarchy, however, you discovered the underlying principles of behaviour which meant that Hong Kong traffic was actually safer than many other similar crowded cities.

Once I acquired a car of my own (family life demanded it) I soon found my way around the complex streets of the urban areas. I also discovered that the main danger was not speed, because most of the time the urban traffic crawled around in one congested throng. Most hazardous, however, was impatience, mine and others, as everyone sweated it out in tedious traffic jams, especially around the bottleneck which was the Cross Harbour Tunnel, before the others were built to accommodate the volume of demand. Impatience led to minor skirmishes, as one was lured into the practice of nudging in front of any competitor for an extra few metres of road.

This actually resulted in few serious accidents, but caused the type of minor dents and scratches that most cars carried. Mercifully, I was never involved in anything serious but did have a couple of annoying scrapes.

One time I was reversing out of a parking slot on the main road. I checked carefully for any traffic. There was nothing coming so I began to reverse out. At that very moment, a vehicle suddenly decided to emerge without warning from a driveway immediately behind me so I collided with it, causing a significant dent to its front wing and smashing my rear lights. Normally, this might have been no big deal. We would have exchanged insurance details and gone on our respective ways. However, two factors created an escalation of temper. One was that the other owner leapt out of his car and assailed me with a bilingual stream of insulting Cantonese and English. The other was that his vehicle was a very expensive Ferrari sports car, while mine was an aging and already scratched Ford saloon. Given that the fault was his and his attitude was so aggressive I held a deadpan expression and refused to co-operate. I guessed if he really thought he had a case he had my car number and could follow up. He never did of course.

My other inglorious traffic experience involved the Hong Kong Police. I was caught taking a consciously sneaky but illegal shortcut through a bus station in Kowloon. I was stopped and when the constable discovered I didn’t have a valid Hong Kong driving licence I was arrested and taken off to Kowloon Police Station. What followed were many lengthy ludicrous hours of pointless interrogation (I admitted my error straight away), bail, and an invitation to court. When the day came, the magistrate was not impressed by my attempted mitigation that I thought my British driving licence was sufficient authority. “Your British licence is only valid for the first three months after your arrival in Hong Kong,” he intoned. “How long have you lived here?” he continued. “Eleven years,” I had to admit shamefacedly. Fine – eight hundred Hong Kong dollars.

By the time of my later years in Hong Kong, the traffic system and culture had progressed greatly. The new infrastructure (waterfront motorways, additional cross-harbour tunnels etc) ensured a freer and better organised flow of traffic. Vehicles were more modern, comfortable and safe. Drivers became more considerate.

I did find the optimum personal solution to the challenges of the system before I left. For a decade I lived in Aberdeen and commuted daily to my office in Wanchai. I would jump on the local minibus at an early hour, toss my five Hong Kong dollar coin into the tin box and hold on for dear life as the driver would hurtle us into town. It was extremely fast and efficient as other traffic would keep well out of the way of our skilled but manic chauffeur.

(The writer lived in Hong Kong for more than twenty years, arriving soon after the death of Mao and leaving after the handover of the territory to China. He experienced the seismic transformation of Hong Kong on its journey from plastic flowers and T-shirts to global front runner in trade and high finance.)

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