Coffee Evenings in the Hong Kong MTR

The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, seems to have been rapidly integrated into the day-to-day life of the city since the opening of the Modified Initial System route in 1979. The MTR Corporation’s Annual Report from 1979 is proof enough of this, giving the impression in no uncertain terms that the Corporation was pleased with how the system had been received by the general public.[1] Since then, the system has continued to expand both in size and popularity, with the Modified Initial System being expanded into the Tsuen Wan and Island lines over the course of the 1980s, and the Tseung Kwan O and Airport Express lines over the course of the 1990s, and so on going into the 21st century. One curious, and underreported element of the MTR’s expansion during this period is their method of gathering customer feedback. Instead of the more conventional approaches to gathering feedback, the MTR made use of so-called ‘Coffee Evenings’ hosted at MTR stations, starting in 1991.[2] These took the format of sit down events, taking part in the early evenings, where members of the public would be able to offer their opinions on the MTR to management staff.[3] The issues described as being commonly raised are not especially surprising or of particular interest – being matters such as air conditioning, cleanliness, and service announcements.[4]

What is of particular interest to me is how these events were specifically conducted – what atmosphere they carried, and how the management of the MTR corporation attempted to present themselves with. Unfortunately, the available information on these events is sparse at best – the only information on them that I could find online is documentation from the MTR Corporation itself, in the form of press releases transcribing announcements relating to the events, and the ‘Staying On Track With Your Views’ series, which are annual reports where the MTR responds to the feedback they have received. The limitations of these sources in finding out what these events looked and felt like are obvious – including especially negative or dramatic experiences would not be in the interest of the MTR Corporation, and positive feedback is likely to be focused on disproportionally. Still, these booklets are still useful in presenting the idealized image of the MTR’s Coffee Evenings.

An example of this image can be found in the 1993 edition of Staying On Track With Your Views, which uses a photo of a Coffee Evening as its front page.[5] The atmosphere presented in the photo is friendly, calm, and approachable – with what appears to be relaxed conversations taking place[6]. Plants are scattered around the area, and people of all ages – from children to businessmen – are present, creating an environment not unlike that of a coffee shop.[7] This relaxed and approachable tone is also conveyed in the letter included in the booklet – it ‘cordially invite(s)’ the public to provide feedback, and even includes a phone number that can be used to this end.[8]

As previously mentioned, any further analysis of the MTR’s Coffee Evenings is unfortunately hampered by the lack of available material, especially with regards to material that provides alternative viewpoints – to put it in short, only half of the story has been told. Further investigation is absolutely warranted – given how quickly the MTR seems to have embedded itself into Hong Kong, a more thorough examination of these feedback sessions would perhaps shine a light on the dynamics and lived experience of the MTR in this period, and how the corporation and the public engaged with each other.

[1] Mass Transit Railway Corporation. Annual Report of the Mass Transit Railway Corporation, 1979. 6.

[2] Mass Transit Railway Corporation. Press Release, 1995. 5.

[3] Press Release, 1995. 2.

[4] Ibid. 6.

[5] Mass Transit Railway Corporation. Staying On Track With Your Views, 1993. 1.

[6] Staying On Track With Your Views, 1993. 1.

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. 22.

The Ideology of Architecture

“The design of urban space was no less than a project to socially engineer humanity: architects and urban planners saw the built environment as an instrument to shape the moral values and practices of the populace.”1 

The idea that architects use physical space to shape habits, values, and ideologies is a powerful claim.  In Vietnam, French colonial architecture and socialist architecture took opposing approaches to this manipulation of space.  From the earliest stages of colonial activity in Vietnam, hygiene went hand in hand with colonial authority.  More than half a century later, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, East German architects were similarly concerned with health, but their approach to designing built environments was very different.

In colonial Indochina, health was a primary concern for the French.  Early manuals written for French settlers promoted hygiene through housing and “offered systematic rules to tropical living.”2 They not only dictated the orientation, materials, and layout of houses, but insinuated the superiority of western sanitation practices through their pseudo-scientific claims about tropical diseases.  Houses built according to these manuals were not only meant to be physically distanced from the indigenous populace for “hygienic” reasons, but to symbolize their distinctiveness through their outward appearance.  As the population of French colonialists grew, the “hill station” of Dalat was established in the mountains of central Vietnam in order to promote the health of colonial soldiers, officials, and elites.  The justification for this project relied on assumptions about the dangers of “tropicality” (which included the inhabitants of the tropics), and allowed the French to build a segregated European area designed to improve (European) health.3 Segregated facilities existed not only in the mountains, but in the infrastructure of cities as well.  The sewer system of Hanoi, a project spurred by the same prejudiced assumptions about tropical diseases, only served the “European quarter” demonstrating how “colonial sewers were part of a larger urban system in which race dictated access to the blessings of modernism.”4 Sanitation, and assumptions about the superiority of western hygiene practices, became a symbol of colonial power asserted through infrastructure and architecture.  

Paul Doumer, L’Indo-Chine Française, Souvenirs (Paris: 1905),, 70.

Paul Doumer, the Governor-General of French Indochina from 1897 to 1902, published an account of his travels which contrasts the built environment of French areas with other parts of Indochina.  His description of the hospital in Hanoi (a physical monument to modern western medicine) describes its “construction mixte” (mixed construction), neither tropical nor European architecture designed to promote airflow and provide sun protection.5 He includes an image showcasing the the “Palais du Gouvernement” in Saigon which he describes as ideally constructed for “un climat ou il faut pour vivre beaucoup d’air, beaucoup d’espace” (a climate where, in order to live, one needs a lot of air and space).6 His architectural account aligns with assumptions that tropical climates were inherently dangerous to Europeans and that indigenous sanitation practices, infrastructure, and architecture were inferior to western ones.  As a result, colonial houses, hill stations, sewer systems, hospitals, and government buildings physically and symbolically separated French and indigenous forms of hygiene.  The built environment was not only a symbolic assertion of colonial sanitary superiority, but excluded the Vietnamese populace from benefiting from these allegedly superior practices.   

Christina Schwenkel, “Traveling Architecture: East German Urban Designs in Vietnam,” in International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 2, no. 2: (2014), 164.

In contrast to colonial architecture, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, “soviet block” architecture dictated hygiene in different way.  In her study of urban Vietnam and East German architecture, Christina Schwenkel compares the the destruction of the Vietnamese city of Vinh to that of Dresden during WWII, and argues that the strategies for rebuilding East Germany were later used in Vietnam.7 In response to vast housing shortages resulting from extensive bombing, complexes like the Quang Trung “Wohnkomplex” in Vinh used the concept of prefabricated housing and Soviet style uniform blocks to provide safe, clean, and modern housing for those whose homes had been destroyed.  In contrast to colonial architecture which was designed to symbolize European superiority, mass housing complexes and “socialist architecture” designed housing in collaboration with Vietnamese architects with the immediate needs of Vietnamese residents in mind.  Despite differences in historical context and approach to design, the goals of socialist German architects reflected those of colonial French architects.  Like the French, German architects saw “modernity” as buildings which “facilitated the flow of air and natural light through the apartments,” and shifted “away from communal living in cramped spaces with shared, outdoor facilities.”8 While complexes like Quang Trung were developed with Vietnamese experts and designed for Vietnamese people, they reflect the same hygiene principles as those emphasized by French colonial architects.  Schwenkel notes that while the project was a collaboration, German architects, “like their colonial predecessors, were the latest in a historical trajectory of non-indigenous architectures and foreign styles of dwelling.”9 Unlike traditional Vietnamese housing which typically separates the “service area” from the “living area,” the layout within the complex followed more Western styles which promoted a more utilitarian use of space.10 

Despite the focus on the immediate needs of Vietnamese citizens and the creation of living spaces designed to promote the health of its residents the Quang Trung “Wohnkomplex,” like French colonial architecture, reflected the agenda of socialist urban planners.  “The state’s social engineering of living space thus focused on the intimate materialities of dwelling to produce new moral and urban socialist citizens.”11 Both the Palais du Gouvernement and the “Wohnkomplex” come with ideological associations built into their very appearance.  

  1. Christina Schwenkel, “Traveling Architecture: East German Urban Designs in Vietnam,” in International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 2, no. 2: (2014), 159. []
  2. Laura Victoir, “Hygienic Colonial Residences in Hanoi,” in Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840-1940 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014), 234. []
  3. Eric T. Jennings, “Health, Altitude, and Climate,” in Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). []
  4. Michael G. Vann, “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History,” in French Colonial History 4: (2003), 193. []
  5. Paul Doumer, L’Indo-Chine Française, Souvenirs (Paris: 1905),, 115. []
  6. Doumer, L’Indo-Chine Française, 70. []
  7. Schwenkel, “Traveling Architecture,” 163. []
  8. Ibid., 165-168. []
  9. Ibid,. 166. []
  10. Ibid., 167. []
  11. Ibid., 161. []