From Sedan Chair to Jumbo Jet

I would like to go through the history of transportation in Hong Kong here. Why? Well, first of all, these information are not very common on the internet. Documents on history of Hong Kong are plenty. But documents focusing only on transportation of Hong Kong are not that common. I would like to go through this with you here and, see if we have "forgotten anything".

Let's begin with the history of Hong Kong. (Don't worry, I will make it short, I promise!)

History of Hong Kong

According to fossil record, humans started living in areas around Hong Kong since the middle and the late Palaeolithic periods, that is some 140,000 years ago.

In 221 BC, Qin Empire unified the whole China. Since then, Hong Kong was shown on the Empire's map.

During the final years of the Qin dynasty, China was in great turmoil. Commandant of Nanhai rebelled and found the Nanyue Kingdom. It was in fact the first de facto political entity in Hong Kong and areas around. The Kingdom lasted from 203 B.C. till 111 B.C., and was finally conquered by Han Empire Wudi.

History after that is well known. I am not going to repeat it here. Please look into the display board below for details:

Hong Kong Island was occupied by the British in 1841. After signing the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Hong Kong formally became a British colony. A new colonial era then began.

Colonial era came to an end when Hong Kong reunified with China on 1 July 1997.

History of Hong Kong Transportation

Okay, we have come across the boring political part. We are going to look into the transportation segment.

Junk and Sampan

What is the first transportation mean in Hong Kong? The book "From Sedan Chair to Jumbo Jet" (ISBN: 978-988-17788-8-8), published by Bonham Books, claims that before the colonial era, Hong Kong was just a small fishing village and the largest settlement was around Aberdeen. So junk and sampan should be the earliest means of transportation in Hong Kong.

Sedan Chair or Ox Cart?

And how about land transportation? The book claimed the first should be sedan chair "although the the exact date when sedan chairs were introduced in Hong Kong is lost in the mists of time".

Is sedan chair really the first? I don't know. Sedan chair has been appearing in China since ancient time. But I wonder would ox cart appear earlier than that. Anyway, if talking about "public" transportation, sedan chair should take the first place. Record shows that there was a sedan chair strike in 1863. The ciaos created led the government to license them afterward.

Sedan Chair in Central at around 1920

As the roads on Hong Kong Island are normally steep with lots of stairs, sedan chairs were widely used by the elites to commute between their home around The Peak area and their office in Central. A video filmed in 1898 by Thomas Edison shows that sedan chair was a common scenery on Hong Kong streets:

Sedan chairs were long forgotten now. As a local in my mid-thirty, I have never seen one in operation here in my whole life. The last record of sedan chair in use was in the late 50s.

Horse-drawn Carriage

The British has also introduced horse-drawn carriage to Hong Kong once they claimed sovereign. No record showed horse-drawn carriages have been used as public transport. They are only served as private sedans for the elites. A photo in Hong Kong Museum of History showed a horse-drawn carriage in around 1910.


If sedan chair is the first mean of public transportation in Hong Kong, rickshaw must be the second.

The word "Rickshaw" came from the Japanese word "Jin-Riki-Sha", literally means "Man-power-carriage". Who and when rickshaw was invented were claimed differently by various sources. But it is widely believed that Jonathan Scobiethat, a missionary living in Yokohama, invented it in 1868.

Anyway, soon after its invention, this modern means of transportation became popular and was quickly introduced to Shanghai and nearby cities. Hong Kong received its first rickshaw in 1874.

The number of rickshaws serving Hong Kong reached 2000 by the end of the nineteenth century. The number reached its peak in early twentieth century. More than 3000 rickshaws can be seen on the streets of Hong Kong.

As sedan chairs need two coolies to operate, rickshaw can be one-man-operated. Rickshaw operation is therefore more economical than that of sedan chair, which means, cheaper fare. Passengers also commented that a rickshaw ride is smoother and more comfortable than a sedan chair ride. Sedan chairs were rapidly replaced by rickshaws.

However, with the introduction of mechanical powered transport means, the number of rickshaw began to drop. In 1917, there were only 1750 rickshaws left. The number dropped even further in the 30s when buses and trams became more and more popular and affordable. The number of sedan chair and rickshaw saw a boost during the Japanese invasion. But soon after the end of WWII, their number dropped again.

A video clip filmed in 1961 shows the streets of Kowloon & Hong Kong Island. The street was busy with taxis, buses and trams. Only one rickshaw was filmed on Jordan Road however. 

Situation seems to be better in Central. A video taken in 1962 shows the streets of Central and a number of rickshaws can still be seen:

In 1966, one year before the riot, the total number of rickshaw dropped further to only 800. No new licenses were issued since 1975 (some source said 1968).In 1976, the number plummeted to 20!

At the end of 1997, the number was 7 and remained at 4 since 1999. "Examples of the rickshaw could still be seen and hired for short journey or photo shoots outside the old Star Ferry concourse on Hong Kong side, until it was demolished in 2006. An example can now be seen in the Hong Kong Museum of History.", stated the book.

Rickshaw in Hong Kong Museum of History

Peak Trams, Motor cars, Trams, Trains, Buses, and so on

Introduction of Peak Tram, the first mechanically powered transport means, in 1888 marked the start of a new transportation era in Hong Kong history. First private motor car appeared in Hong Kong in the early twentieth century. Hong Kong tramways started operation in 1904. And first train connecting Hong Kong to the outside world commenced service in 1911, just in time before the collapse of Qing Dynasty. Two years later, buses started their engine the first time in Hong Kong.

Nowadays, Peak Tram is still a popular tourist attraction. Private cars are everywhere, congested every Hong Kong street. Trams are still the cheapest way to commute along the northern coast of Hong Kong Island and are always full of passengers. Train was converted from an intercity service to commuter railway and eventually became a part of the modern MTR network. Wheelchair accessible air-conditioned buses was the standard since reunification.

Have we forgotten anything?

In such a modernized city, human powered public transportation has nowhere to go.

Sedan chairs had gone for more than 50 years already. Rickshaw were completely disappeared after the relocation of Star Ferry Pier in Central in 2006. And sampan, well, there should still be some in typhoon shelters. But who will row a boat to earn money from the public nowadays?

Don't be ridiculous! We have not forgotten anything.

What if I told you we did forget something? Read on!


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