Tag Archives: South China Sea

Hong Kong’s Unseen Icon

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.

Jak0310(41)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:

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‘A yellow-booted guy transporting live fish’

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‘Dude Unloading Boxes’

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‘Guy Shovelling Sand Into Baskets’

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‘Man (Or Woman) Pushing Chair Backs Down Lee Garden Road’

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‘Gas Cannisters Locked To A Tree’

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‘Guy Pushing Water Containers With Reading Matter in Hip Pocket’

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‘Woman Pushing Pile of Crap Down Lee Garden Road’

and the rather poignant ‘Elderly Woman With Empty Trolley Heading Off to Times Square’:

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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:

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Indeed, you can park them more or less anywhere, secure in the knowledge that no one looks at them twice:

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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’:

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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:

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Or the street-cleaners (yes they use them too) “Bag Hanging Hack + Bamboo Pole with Warning Red Flag On”:

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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:

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(I love the Chinese handwriting and telephone number painted on.) There’s also the smaller two-wheeled trolley concept:

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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:

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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?

Loose Wire — I Seek

Loose Wire — I Seek Mum, Nick and Sally

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 14 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Communication is a funny thing. Living in Southeast Asia in the 1980s I’d type out letters in the enveloping heat, making carbon copies — confident the original would never arrive — and fight my way to the post office past beggars, pickpockets and expat financial-services salesmen, just to stay in touch. Now I have a handphone, e-mail and fax and I can barely talk my thumbs into tapping out a text message home once in a while. It may just be me, but I suspect the harder it is to stay in touch, the better we are at it.

One phenomenon that has bucked this trend is Internet messaging. ICQ was revolutionary when it first popped up in 1996 via an Israeli company called Mirabilis. The first time I used it to send a message to my friend Jim across the South China Sea was mind-blowing.

Now ICQ has been snapped up by AOL and boasts some 127 million users — a sign that people seem to want to stay in touch. For those of us with friends and family in different time zones, such programs are a good way to exchange casual greetings when our on-line sessions happen to coincide.

That said, there’s a downside and it must be fixed before messaging really catches on. While ICQ is by far the most popular chat program or messaging client, Microsoft also has its own, as do AOL and Yahoo. The problem is whether or not to allow users on one service to interact with users on another. So far things haven’t worked out; AOL has blocked most attempts at hooking up to their users, arguing they don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry hacking into their computers.

Fair point, but in reality the issue is money: These programs spread like wildfire because they were free, and so far no one’s making any money. ICQ has started discreetly adding small adverts but it’s not going to make a dent in the cost of hosting tens of millions of chatty messaging folk. Until chat becomes like your mobile-phone service — where you can be assured of reaching someone, whatever network they’re on — it’s going to be a gimmick. Loading a different program for each service gets messy.

But this is where it gets interesting. Some enterprising dudes have started offering software that handles more than one service, meaning that if you have friends with Yahoo, Microsoft and ICQ accounts, for example, you can chat with them via one program. The best of these is Trillian (www.trillian.cc), written by Kevin Kurtz and Scott Werndorfer and already boasting 2 million copies.

As you can imagine, the giants aren’t happy about two whippersnappers piggybacking on all their hard work. The logos of Microsoft’s MSN, AOL and Yahoo are reduced to acne-like splodges inside Trillian’s window and are, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to users, who are just happy to be able to connect with their chums on other services.

AOL has already made its feelings known by attempting to shut out Trillian, who have spent much of the past few weeks trying to get back in.

Trillian may be small fry, but they’ve opened the door. AT&T launched a new version of their IM Anywhere program in February that connects to all the other services except ICQ. Fending off two guys in a bedsit may be one thing for AOL, but AT&T may be a tougher proposition.

Where is this going to take us? I’d like to see basic text messages to all services offered as a standard, with users deciding which program they use to pull all their contacts together. PalTalk, a small start-up that also connects to AOL, has found there’s money in extra services like voice, video and professional chat groups.

For most, text chat is just a great way of staying in touch with people across the street or planet. Most don’t care which program does it, and aren’t crazy about all the extra hoopla companies try to cram in to lure folk aboard.

So just give us simple Internet messaging for free, and charge for premium services like security, messaging between handphones and Internet, or on-line collaboration for professional use. Who knows? I might even persuade my mum to sign up: It beats picking up a phone.