Riding the Hong Kong Octopus
A stylish young woman glides down an escalator into a busy underground metro station. She strides over to one of the automatic turnstiles barring access to the train platform and waves her empty hand over its postcard-sized scanner plate. The turnstile beeps once in response, flashes the amount of credit the woman has left on her metro pass, and opens its gate. In less than a second, the woman has bought her ticket to ride.
A scene from some futuristic cyberpunk movie? Guess again. You've just watched the start of another morning commute in high-tech Hong Kong.
That hip young woman in the metro station wears an unusual fashion accessory on one finger: A ring containing a microchip metro pass. This trendy piece of electronic jewelry remains par for the course in Hong Kong, a city obsessed with the latest computer gadgetry. In fact, Hong Kongers have become the world's first true cyborgs. They have metro passes on their fingers, stereo speakers in their ears, timepieces on their wrists and mobile-phone mikes in front of their mouths. In Hong Kong, the future is now.
Along with the musical melodies played by ringing mobile phones, the electronic beep of fares being deducted from metro passes remains one of the most common sounds in Hong Kong. Virtually everyone in Hong Kong carries a mobile phone and a metro pass, which is known almost universally as the Octopus Card.
Whether shaped like a ring or a business card, all Octopus Cards work the same way. The user holds their pass over an orange-colored scanner mounted on a subway turnstile or at the front of a bus or tram. The scanner reads the computer chip embedded in the card, deducts the fare, and flashes the amount of credit remaining on the card. The whole transaction takes just a second or two, which is the kind of speed that Hong Kong likes to move at. After all, everybody in Hong Kong knows that time really does equal money.
The Octopus Card was originally designed for the Mass Transit Railway, the city's extensive subway system that virtually everyone refers to as the MTR. Ironically, the MTR's six-armed logo resembles an arachnid more than an octopus, but you get the point -- the tentacles of the MTR stretch out to every corner of Hong Kong, from Sheung Wan to Tung Chung.
In addition to the MTR, the Octopus Card works on all the other parts of Hong Kong's excellent mass-transit system as well. This system offers clean, fast and safe public transport at affordable prices. Provided you know Chinese and/or English, this system remains one of the easiest in the world to use. This ease of use has a lot to do with the Octopus Card, which works at all times on virtually all forms of public transit. All you have to do is hold your card over a scanner, wait for the beep, and that's that. You'll never fumble for coins or bills ever again.
Most Hong Kong residents carry an Octopus Card, but even short-term visitors to the city should consider purchasing the card if they plan to use public transport. The special tourist passes touted in MTR advertisements are best avoided, as they don't offer a particularly good deal when compared to the regular Octopus Card. Tourist passes only allow travel on the MTR lines, whereas an Octopus Card allows you to travel on all forms of public transport. And while the price of the tourist pass does include a one-way ride on the sleek Airport Express train, this hardly seems a selling point given that virtually every visitor to Hong Kong needs a round-trip ticket to the airport.
Your best bet is to buy a regular Octopus Card and a separate round-trip ticket on the Airport Express. You can buy both as soon as you land in Hong Kong at the Airport Express desk in the arrivals hall of Chek Lap Kok International Airport. In addition, all MTR stations in the city sell Octopus Cards, which will cost you HK$150 (US$20). Fifty of that is a refundable deposit on the card; the remaining amount is the credit available for ticket fares. When you exhaust your available credit, you can top up your card at any of the automated add-value machines located in all MTR stations. You simply insert your pass into the machine along with a $50, $100 or $500 bill. The machine will then transfer the appropriate cash value to your card and presto, you're ready to make hassle-free journeys to even the most far-flung parts of Hong Kong.
You will have a wide variety of transport options to choose from while exploring Hong Kong. Your Octopus Card will work on all five underground MTR lines as well as the above-ground Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) that runs from Hung Hom out to the Chinese border. The pass also works on the city's double-decker buses, regardless of what company operates them, as well as the smaller minibuses. You can use your pass on the old electric street trams on Hong Kong Island or on the new Light Rail Transit line that runs between Tuen Mun and Yuen Long in the New Territories. The pass also works on the famous Star Ferry as well as the inter-island ferries steaming out to Lantau, Lamma and Cheung Chau Islands. Even the tram that runs up to Victoria Peak accepts the Octopus Card.
As of now, only taxis and the Central Escalator do not accept the Octopus Card. There is no charge to use the Central Escalator, a half-mile series of escalators and moving walkways running from Central up to the Mid-Levels of Hong Kong Island. As for taxis, doubtless they will soon start accepting Octopus Cards once the technical kinks are sorted out.
After all, the Octopus Card has begun to function as a sort of all-purpose debit card. You can use your Octopus Card for purchases at many 7-11 and Circle-K convenience stores, for example. The willingness of convenience stores to accept the Octopus Card says a great deal about how popular the pass has become with Hong Kong commuters.
Indeed, the entire public transport system operates on the assumption that nearly all of its riders carry the Octopus Card. As a result, those without the card ride as second-class passengers who face the constant inconvenience of paying their fares in cash. Without the Octopus Card your public-transit travels will quickly degenerate into long lines and a constant struggle for coins. You can buy single-ride tickets for the MTR at automated vending machines, but the machines can have long queues -- as lines are called in this former British colony -- and tend to run out of change or simply break down. You can also buy single-ride tickets at service booths in MTR stations and ferry docks, but this remains far less convenient than simply breezing through the turnstiles with a wave of your Octopus Card.
Buses remain particularly biased towards carriers of the Octopus Card, since riders without the pass must pay the fare in exact change upon boarding. If the fare for the bus to Stanley is HK$9.20, for example, then you have to drop exactly that amount of coins into the fare box or pay over the amount with a $10 coin. Drivers will not give change or accept banknotes, though riders caught without coins or cards have been known to annoy drivers by jamming $20-bills into the fare box. An Octopus Card spares you from having to perform a surfer-like balancing act as your bus careens around corners with you still standing at the front, desperately counting out your coins. Meanwhile, all the Octopus Card-holders will have whisked past you and grabbed the last available seats.
The Octopus Card has only one disadvantage, but it's the same disadvantage inherent to cash. Just like with one of those red $100 notes, if you lose your card then you're out of luck. The Octopus Card is essentially a form of cash, so if you drop your card on the sidewalk somebody else will pick it up and use it to ride out to Shek O or Lo Wu. Meanwhile, you'll be stuck with buying a new card.
Otherwise the Octopus Card offers nothing but advantages. You get convenience, efficiency and speed. You even get a slight discount over those paying fares in cash. Even better, once you start waving your Octopus Card around you'll look like a local, especially if you have a mobile phone and like to shout wei, wei into the receiver whenever somebody calls you. Of course, if you want to look really hip, you can always buy one of those cutting-edge Octopus rings. Then you'll quite literally have all of Hong Kong at your fingertips.
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Published on 6/20/03