Hong Kong is a very practical city — you’ve got to be, with everyone living on top of each other — but sometimes I wonder whether it’s also an overly conservative one. For example, the other day I was very impressed at how one restaurant, which only accepts cash, brings the change in anticipation of what bill you’ll pay with. Put a HK$500 down on the bill wallet, and with a flourish worthy of a magician, the wallet is opened at another page with the change already there. Charming, and practical, saving time, and footleather.
But that’s the only restaurant I’ve seen this at. Maybe there are more, but you would think an innovation like this would quickly catch on elsewhere. So far, it seems, it hasn’t.
To me the biggest area that is ripe for some innovation like that is the Hong Kong cart/trolley. It’s ubiquitous, and as long as I’ve been visiting Hong Kong it’s been here. For those of you haven’t seen one, it’s a very simple design: four small wheels, larger than a baby-buggy, but smaller than a child’s bicycle, overlaid with a metal frame and sometimes a wooden board. The handle is a simple iron rod bent at the top. That’s pretty much it.
Now, these things are everywhere. Out to grab a coffee this morning I spotted about 30. They’re so commonplace they’re invisible, which is tricky in a place where pedestrians or cars cover every inch of spare sidewalk or road. Somehow, the folk that use these things manage to navigate their way through the throng without any ankles removed, people upended or worse.
And they are used to carry everything. I started snapping a few, but quickly ran out of space on my cellphone before I could capture the full range:
‘A yellow-booted guy transporting live fish’
‘Dude Unloading Boxes’
‘Guy Shovelling Sand Into Baskets’
‘Man (Or Woman) Pushing Chair Backs Down Lee Garden Road’
‘Gas Cannisters Locked To A Tree’
‘Guy Pushing Water Containers With Reading Matter in Hip Pocket’
‘Woman Pushing Pile of Crap Down Lee Garden Road’
and the rather poignant ‘Elderly Woman With Empty Trolley Heading Off to Times Square’:
OK, you get the idea. They’re multifunctional. They’re used by a wide swathe of age-groups and users. They’re also good for parking on Hong Kong’s many inclines:
Indeed, you can park them more or less anywhere, secure in the knowledge that no one looks at them twice:
Clearly these trolleys are useful. But to me they’re still badly designed. You can see as much from the various customizations that their users have introduced. In the picture above, for example, you can see the classic ‘One Rope Across the Handle Bar’ hack which helps stuff not fall off the back. Variants on these include the ‘Multi Rope Web’ which does a better job, basically by tying as much rope or string across the back of the handle as possible. Those without rope can try the ‘Piece Of Cardboard Across The Handle Kept In Place By Tape Hack’:
All of these look aesthetically awful, but have endured as long as I’ve been coming to Hong Kong, which is 16 years. Then there’s the problem of the handle itself. Not much you can do with it, except try the “Bag Hanging Hack” which is illustrated thus:
Or the street-cleaners (yes they use them too) “Bag Hanging Hack + Bamboo Pole with Warning Red Flag On”:
But to me all these hacks cry out for a better design. There must be a better way of transporting stuff around in Hong Kong. Of course, there are other methods, from the old delivery bicycle:
(I love the Chinese handwriting and telephone number painted on.) There’s also the smaller two-wheeled trolley concept:
But the four-wheeled trolley is by far the most popular. To me it’s an icon of Hong Kong and a testament to the grit and attitude of its people that they are still as common as they were a decade or so ago. I imagine that without these trolleys, Hong Kong would grind to a standstill:
Still, I’m no designer, but I would have thought that these trolleys could be better designed, or some of the common hacks one sees on existing models could be built into future models? Or would that ruin the Unseen Icon of Hong Kong?