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.