November 2014

Ascent to the Peak - Our Peak Tramways Collection

Entrance to Garden Road terminus, early 1900s

The Hong Kong Heritage Project holds the historic records and photographs chronicling the development of the Peak Tramways from the 1930s onwards. This collection provides a unique and accurate record of the company's milestones over the past six decades. Below we trace the history of the Peak Tram, from its inception in 1888 until its function as a key transport and tourist amenity today.

In Hong Kong's early days, Victoria Peak was used as a signalling post for incoming cargo ships. Later, 'the Peak' as it came to be known, was used by privileged residents of Hong Kong to escape the stifling heat of the summer months spent in Central. Before the Peak Tramway was inaugurated in 1888, sedan chairs carried by 'coolies' (porters) were the only mode of transportation to and from town, and remained so until 1924 when Stubbs Road was completed. A few Hong Kong residents, including the Governor, Sir Richard MacDonnell, had set up their summer houses on the Peak in the late 1860s. As Hong Kong became established as a strategic military and commercial outpost, there were increasing demands for the opening up of new luxury residential districts.

Alexander Findlay Smith, an enterprising young Scot who arrived in Hong Kong in the 1860s, purchased a site atop Victoria Peak where he opened the Peak Hotel in 1873. As a former employee of Scotland's Highland Railway, Findlay appears to have been fascinated by the potential of combining rails and wheels for maximum efficiency in moving goods and people. He proposed the introduction of six tram lines in Hong Kong, and his most ambitious proposal was for a funicular railway to scale the vertical heights of Victoria Peak, thereby attracting more business for his hotel. The scheme was approved in 1882 and construction work started in September 1885. It took three years to build, as much of the heavy equipment had to be carried uphill by brute manpower alone.

Once the tram cars started carrying their first passengers in 1888, the business was a huge success. What had taken up to an hour by sedan chair could now be achieved in less than ten minutes. The Peak Tramway was the first cable railway in Asia (soon followed by another on Penang Hill) and remains one of the steepest in the world. From 1908 until 1949, the first two seats were reserved for the use of the Governor, and could not be occupied by anyone else until two minutes to departure time. A brass plaque affixed to the back read: 'this seat is reserved for His Excellency, the Governor'.

In December 1941, during the Battle of Hong Kong, the engine room was damaged by Japanese shelling. Following extensive repairs, a limited service resumed in December 1945, maintaining a continuous service until the severe floods of 1966, when the track was completely washed away from the Bowen Road to Kennedy Road stations as a result of a retaining wall collapsing at Bowen Road Bridge. Once repaired the tramway service was the only means of public transport to the Peak area in the following few days. 

The original Lower Peak Tram Station was made of wood and was demolished in 1935 and replaced with a new station which incorporated St John's Apartments. In 1966 a new Lower Peak Tram Terminus was unveiled, designed by famous Hong Kong architects Messrs. Palmer & Turner, who were also responsible for the design of a later addition to the Peak Hotel in 1890. In turn this, too, was re-developed and the distinctive architecture of the present 22-storey commercial building (St John's Building) was awarded the Silver Medal of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects in 1983.

Today, over 6 million passengers ride on the Peak Tram every year, an average of 17,000 per day, many of whom are tourists and local sightseers. On its first day of operation, the Peak Tram carried 800 passengers, almost exclusively residents. The company was acquired by The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels group in 1971.

Further information is available at the Peak Tram website: www.thepeak.com.hk