Driving in Hong Kong.
Driving in Hong Kong is a unique experience. There’s simply nothing else like it. Just one in twenty citizens owns a car in this mega-city on the Pearl River Delta. Indeed few adults in the city of seven million even hold a driving license. Space is at a premium here and parking – especially in downtown Hong Kong – can be a nerve-wracking experience. The population density peaks on the Kowloon Peninsula at 130,000 people per square kilometre – a figure that is not matched anywhere else in the world. With so many people, parking spaces are few and far between – and astronomically expensive. Private parking facilities can easily cost one thousand euros per month. That’s just to park your car. It’s no surprise then that nine out of ten residents are regular users of the city’s mass transit services. A smart should cut a fine figure in a big city like this. German Inga Beckmann and Hong Kong local Jonathan Maloney are checking it out.
Big city, small car. A great combination.
Big city, small car. A great combination. Or what do you think? Inga – who moved to Hong Kong from Germany six years ago – grins. Jonathan – a native of Hong Kong – nods enthusiastically. They clearly like what they’re seeing. The cause of their delight is descending in a lift from the third storey of a high-rise car park opposite their studio in the hip neighbourhood of Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island.
Inga actually begins to jump for joy as she snatches up the key to the smart. Inga loves to drive. She doesn’t own a car, but she never misses an opportunity to book a rental whenever her work takes her away from Hong Kong. To this day, she hasn’t driven a single mile in her adopted home.
Hey there, cutie!
Inga: Hey there, cutie! You’re a sweet little thing. Getting to know you is going to be a delight.
Jonathan: I think this might be love at first sight. And it’s dressed up in the colours of Hong Kong’s flag! Oh, by the way, you can call me “Jon”. A short name to match a small car.
Jon strolls around the smart fortwo, counting his steps as he goes – though there aren’t many to count.
The doors are so big!
He gently runs his hand across its black hood. Inga glances up at the sky before consulting the weather app on her smartphone. The forecast is for 18 degrees celsius. A cool wind and cloudy to overcast. Nothing to worry about, she assures us. Today the couple, who often works together and recently shot a feature on legendary music producer Quincy Jones, will be in front of the camera for a change. She’ll photograph him, he’ll photograph her – and their two assistants will photograph them together. With and without the car.
Jon: Look! The doors are so big! I’m amazed! I like cars that are out of the ordinary. And this is so different to all the high-performance sports cars, luxury saloons and SUVs that you see in Hong Kong’s financial and business districts. This smart is perhaps half or a third of the size of an average car here in Hong Kong.
Inga: And best of all, dear Jon: it’s a cabrio. I am genuinely excited. Just driving around with the wind in your face. Gosh, I’ve missed that. Let’s go!
Many Hong Kongers don’t have a driving license.
Inga yanks open the door – only to stop abruptly as she is about to leap in. Jon bursts out laughing. Left-hand traffic is still the rule in this former British colony. Just like in England. Inga is standing at the passenger door.
Jon: I’d love to drive – and you know I could – but I’m not allowed to. At least not on public roads. Like a lot of people in Hong Kong, I don’t have a driving license. You’d better drive for now. But we have got to find somewhere later where I can get behind the driving wheel.
Inga: Then you’d better be nice to me today. Or there’ll be only one person driving this baby and that’s me!
The design is sleek and clear.
After adjusting the mirrors and seats, they settle in and take a moment to appraise the fittings in the cockpit. The design is sleek and clear. Nothing to distract from the driving experience. An automatic transmission. No questions. Inga starts the 71 PS engine and merges into the flowing traffic. It’s a Saturday. A super Saturday for Inga and Jon. We hope.
Jon: Wow! There’s so much space in here! I’m no giant, but the legroom is amazing!
Inga: You don’t realise you’re in a compact vehicle until you look over your shoulder.
It’s the Usain Bolt of the convertible world!
Stopping at a red light, she takes out a stopwatch. On her signal, Jon clicks on a button to open the hood. As if by magic, a ray of sunlight chooses this moment to break through the clouds. Perfect timing.
Inga: Stop! Twelve seconds! Not bad.
Jon: It’s the Usain Bolt of the convertible world!
You opened the hood at the lights. But there’s no need to stop – it works just as well at speed. Be sure to give it a whirl on the motorway later. But – oh no – here comes the rain again. Hong Kong’s weather is notoriously fickle. So down comes the hood again. This time at 50 km/h and without a hitch.
The sense of freedom I get from driving this car is something else.
The journey continues through downtown Hong Kong and then southward, with their assistants following in an A-Class. Crossing a reservoir, Inga heads into the wild beyond. Mountains, palm trees, sea views. There is more to Hong Kong than skyscrapers, merchant banking, and bustling markets. The territory comprises no less than 263 islands, complete with nature reserves, lush forests and stunning beaches. Just under a third of Hong Kong’s total surface area of 1,100 square kilometres has actually been developed. Their first destination: Tai Tam Tuk, a small fishing village in Tai Tam Bay that is popular with water sports enthusiasts. Inga comes here almost every weekend to indulge her passion for wakeboarding.
If traffic is flowing smoothly, the trip to the bay from their apartment in Hong Kong City takes around twenty minutes on the weekend. As she doesn’t own a car, Inga usually takes a taxi. But that could soon change.
Inga: I’ve got to say, the sense of freedom I get from driving this car is something else.
Jon: A car like this really makes sense in a city like Hong Kong. And it would for you in any case. Admit it: you’re already falling in love with it!
Inga: Are you jealous?
Jon: No. I just like to see you smile like this.
Jim, 55, a handsome but weathered looking man who operates a surf school in the bay, greets the couple with a warm handshake. “That’s one cool car you’ve got there. I like it. It’s small, compact. And there’s something sporty about it, too.”
Jon: Could I test drive it here? Maybe do a few circuits of your lot?
Sometimes less is more.
Jim shrugs and nods with a smile. Inga tosses the key to her boyfriend. He starts the engine and takes the smart for a quick spin to see whether it truly deserves its unofficial world record for the tightest turning radius. It does. Jon puffs up his chest as he pulls alongside Inga and, jutting his chin upward, flashes her a grin and a thumbs up. Hey Jon, the smart holds the world record, not you. And the best thing about this car? You don’t need to be an expert driver to get the best out of it.
Inga: So how about it? Are you finally going to get your driver’s license?
Jon: I am seriously considering it. Like I said, this smart is one cool car. And it speaks to one of my core beliefs: sometimes less is more.
With the hood down, there’s oodles of space for the couple’s camera equipment and even enough for Inga’s wakeboard!
Drifting along without a care.
Jon parks the cabrio close to the water and takes a seat alongside Inga on the open tailgate. Their assistants manage the shoot before the team hits the highway and heads back to Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island. Jon and Inga raise and lower the hood several times along the way. It looks like someone is having fun. The couple cruises through their neighbourhood.
Then they park the smart in the public underground car park and head to Tim’s Kitchen for lunch. The dishes are Chinese. Steamed vegetables, shrimps and pork. All smiles, they continue their road trip through Hong Kong. Drifting along without a care in the world. Inga lets out a laugh as she spots several pedestrians turning to gaze in delight at the compact cabriolet, some even whipping out their smartphones to take a snapshot of this rare sight in Hong Kong.
The engine takes on a more sonorous note.
Inga: Let’s head over to the red monastery wall. From there it’s just a couple of blocks to Teakha Teahouse.
Jon: Sure. Those are both great locations for photo shoots.
They really are. And the tea – about ten euros per person – is worth every penny. But Jon and Inga have saved the best part of their road trip for last. A gorgeous serpentine road snakes its way up to the summit of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak (552 metres) – possibly one of the most beautiful drives on Earth. Inga switches the cabrio to manual drive. The engine takes on a more sonorous note. Rising to the challenge, the music grows louder.
Meanwhile, Jon leans back and takes in the view: below them lie the waters of Victoria Harbour, its shores lined with the skyscrapers that dominate the skylines of Hong Kong Central and the Kowloon Peninsula, their towering forms swathed in a steamy haze.
Inga: It’s so beautiful.
And? How was your road trip through Hong Kong?
Jon and Inga (unanimously): smart!