If I had not met Forest, I would not know road repair work takes place in our city's elevated roads nearly every night. "Do we have that many elevated roads? Do they need to be mended that often?" These questions refused to go away in my early conversations with Forest. The answer is always an absolute "yes".
Forest Leung Siu-cheong is a civil engineer. He maintains and repairs joints in bridges and elevated roads. He is also responsible for the safety of bridge bearings. His daily – or rather, nightly – routine starts when most people in the city are about to go to bed. The 31-year-old is a keen road user himself, but not an ordinary one – he cycles at daybreak to avoid competing with cars and trucks for precious highway space. I went to see him to find out what it is like to cycle on the roads and highways for fun in a bike-unfriendly place like Hong Kong, which is something he started doing three years ago.
Though work requires Forest to live a reverse day-night schedule, it is a perfect match for his road cycling interest. A regular day for him begins in the late afternoon when he goes to his Cheung Sha Wan office to prepare for the nocturnal work. The preparation includes going through documents and uploading the necessary tools, machinery, snacks and drinking water on to the company vehicle. Then he goes home for dinner, after which he goes straight to the site, sets the roadblocks and starts fixing problems.
"I'm usually out on the roads at around 11pm. We block off traffic first. If the task isn't complicated and the work goes smoothly, we can get the job done fairly early, let's say between two and three in the morning. Otherwise, we finish at dawn," the civil engineer said.
But no matter what time he gets to leave, the biggest reward he gets at the end of a hard night's work is always the pleasure of biking home at full speed on normally busy roads.
"Most cars aren't out on the roads yet. No one competes with me for road space. But it's not just about space, it's also about safety. The prevailing driving culture in Hong Kong tends to be rather hostile to bicycles. It seems like we are second-class road users," he said. His favourite routes are the Chong San Road loop near Science Park, and the highway between Hong Kong Disneyland and Tung Chung.
Paths built for leisure cycling in the New Territories are not a viable alternative for Forest. "The paths fail leisure cyclists. They're broken up into segments as in they do not run as one continuous path over a long distance and in some places, pavements cross-cut the paths. In Hong Kong, we can't ride on pavements because bikes are considered vehicles. There have been times when cyclists got fined for failing to get off their bike after they've gone from being on a cycling path to being on a pavement," Forest said.
Forest's work cycle is governed by the government's budgetary cycle. Since the government's fiscal year begins in April, he tends to be less busy in spring and summer, and enjoys more time for cycling. Apart from the daily dawn ride, he practises with a group of cyclists on the weekends. His group-mates come from all walks of lives, from photo-journalists to bankers and teachers. "It is really fun. Although we come from different backgrounds, our passion for cycling brings us together. We go yum cha after our weekly practice, we chat about everything which lets me know about lives in other professions," Forest said.
His work peaks in autumn and winter. As the government's fiscal year draws to an end, it is not unusual he has to work on the roads seven nights a week. When that happens, Forest has to temporarily suspend the weekly bike practice but keeps the daybreak rides. He said the rides help him stay fit and counter stress.
Although he has to work outdoors all year round, the 31-year-old has no problem overcoming the hardship brought by bone-chilling temperatures or summer rainstorms. The toughest part of his job is not about weather extremities or the challenge of repairing weather-worn roads; rather, the hardest part of his work comes from accommodating a multitude of complaints, and even blatant hostility.
"Drivers and passengers blame us for holding up traffic. Some people leave their car to shout at us. Because of these complaints, we have to delay closing the roads. We used to set up roadblocks at around 9pm, now the earliest we can start is 11. But the later start time leads to another type of complaints from people living nearby who complain about noise pollution at night. They call the police, and the cops come to check what's happening at least once a week. The police officers remember us, they have our mobile numbers. We've got permits, noise permits from the Environmental Protection Department and all other necessary government permits. The most hostile residents throw eggs at us. There isn't much we can do. The machines are noisy. If we can start our work early, our work won't disturb the nearby residents. But we can't do that because drivers and passengers will start complaining about hold-ups," Forest said.
Black spots where Forest and his colleges get "assaulted" by hostile residents include the section of elevated road on Connaught Road West that goes past the harbour-facing residential buildings near Western Wholesale Food Market, and the elevated road that passes Amoy Gardens in Ngau Tau Kok.
"I hope the public understand we're in a rather difficult position. Road repairs are essential for safety. If we don't repair broken roads quickly enough, I'm sure people will complain that we're not doing our job," Forest said.
The cyclist also hopes Hong Kong will be a bike-friendly city so he will be able to cycle to work and ride for leisure wherever and whenever he wants.
A: Government policies have to be fair to everyone, whether you're big business or small. If the government doesn't change this practice, land will continue to be outrageously expensive and will kill all possibilities. I'm rather fortunate that I'm living in a public housing estate. I don't have to worry about buying a flat. Otherwise, how would I have time to go road biking? I would have to take on an extra part-time job in order to earn more money so I can save up to buy a property one day. Life should be about doing something we like and braving new attempts. We spend the majority of our time outside our home. We go home to sleep. Structuring our entire life around saving up for a property is simply not worth. If I have to live my life like that, life will be very gloomy. But I know many people are living their life for their property.
People are judged not by how well they are doing their job and how much contribution they are making to society, but by whether they have a well-paid and glamourous job. This is wrong, if we don't have cleaners, Hong Kong will be un-livable. But how many of us appreciate a cleaner's contribution? Their pay is the lowest and they are invisible, and because of this atmosphere, people don't have pride in their work. We should be proud of our work, no matter how seemingly unexciting and ordinary it is. Our society should respect grassroots workers and give them fair salaries so they can have a decent living.
I met Joe because he wanted help to make the media more sympathetic to his colleagues' grievances. A mutual friend connected us over a year ago. We've become friends since then. I turned to him when I decided to feature the story of a night-time bus driver for the diary.
Joe Ng Kin-hei has been working the evening bus shift for seven years. The 38-year-old usually plies the route between Tin Shui Wai and the airport on Lantau, though he also covers the run between the airport and Shatin or Tuen Mun on the odd occasion. His shift begins at three in the afternoon and finishes at three in the morning. There are times when he has to take up overnight duty which starts at 10 in the evening and ends at nine the next morning.
He believes he must have come across Forest at one of the thousands of brief encounters he's had with road repair engineers because road repairs is a daily scene on the highways. He assured me that he wasn't one of those hostile drivers who gave Forest a hard time at work. Rather, he finds himself on the receiving end of angry outbursts from unreasonable bus passengers on a daily basis. I responded to what Joe said with a show of innocent disbelief on my face, so he explained: "A bus carries up to 120 passengers, the daily average number of runs a bus driver makes is six return journeys, which means I carry more than 1,000 passengers every day. Why are you so surprised to hear that there are passengers who are unreasonable to us? If you've never come across such a scene, it means you don't take the bus. If you've never shouted at a bus driver, it proves you're abnormal.
"If I'm in a good mood, I let them finish their outburst. Otherwise, I stop the bus and tell them that they have as much time to shout at me as they please, and I'll start the bus as soon as they finish. Usually other passengers will intervene when they hear this."
The complaints he gets are typically: "Why didn't the last bus stop?", "Why are there no free seats?", "Why don't you drive faster on a highway?" and "Why don't you take a different route to bypass the traffic jam?" He also gets complaints from passengers who are feeling either too hot or too cold and want him to adjust the air-con temperature.
"Whatever happens, these people always think it's the driver's fault. I used to shout back, but very quickly, I realised that I shouldn't be bothered because it happens a dozen times every day. So three months into the job, I'd already accepted the criticisms, the shouting and yelling as terrible singers singing," Joe said.
Joe thinks complaining, criticizing and shouting are deeply entrenched in the city's culture. Those in the service industry are victims of this customer-centric culture. He blames it on the widely played public service announcement about courteous shop assistants, in which film star Andy Lau said: "Service like this just isn't good enough by today's standard."
"But there isn't much we can do. Even the CE encourages us to shout at others to get what you want," Joe said.
Joe was referring to a statement made by the Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying when he was asked at a business function last November how his government could execute policies more effectively. Leung told his audience: "The Hong Kong government would like to implement and formulate policies as fast as, if not faster than any of the other governments on earth. We want to do that, but we can only do that with the support of the people, so whoever you think is standing in the way of government formulating and implementing policies quickly, shout at them."
But there is one group that never complains: they are the Nepalese and Pakistani migrant workers who make up one third of his passengers. They live in Yuen Long and work in the airport. The migrant workers either handle baggage or work in flight meal kitchens.
They have similar work hours as Joe's. They start at three in the afternoon and finish at 11pm. "So I take them to work and take them home. They are the ethnic minorities and they are poor. They think they are inferior, so they tend to be very quiet. The fact is they are very nice," Joe said.
Although Joe drives an airport bus, the vast majority of his passengers are not en route to some far-flung holiday, but to work in Chek Lap Kok.
He explained: "Who takes the bus late at night? The working class people. The rich and the professionals don't have to work late shifts. Even if they get off late, they take a taxi home. Only the most under-privileged work late shifts. They're usually people in the service industry, working in restaurants. Of course, I take the night bus as well. How am I supposed to go home after work if I don't take a night bus?"
He continued: "Who has to start working before daybreak? Also the lowest-paid people. Cleaners, kitchen staff and waiters. They are very professional about getting enough rest, they wear a hat and a jacket, be it summer or winter. Once they get on the bus, they start sleeping."
Joe used to be a cargo van driver. He switched to bus driving in 2006 because he wasn't able to make enough for a living. "I needed a job badly. What else I could do? Bus driving is a job that I can do as long as I want to do it. The salary is meager but stable," he said.
The night-time bus driver said although Hong Kong's property prices are hitting a record high and the stock exchange is on the up and up, living standards for the city's low income groups have never recovered from the economic blows of the 2003 SARS outbreak. This section of the population is the loser of the current economic boom.
His experience proves that the boom only benefits the higher income groups and businessmen who make their fortunes on the mainland or from mainland tourists in Hong Kong. "I haven't got any pay rise. The rent doubled but a McDonald's meal set jumped from less than $20 to more than $30. The class that I belong to suffers heavily in this economic boom," he said.
With the demands of a stressful, long-hour job, Joe thinks leisurely pursuits like cycling are a luxury few can enjoy. "I have neither the time nor the mood to exercise. I spend 11-12 hours on a bus, how would I have any energy for leisurely activities? People think driving a bus is easy, but apart from the long hours, the psychological pressure is heavy, the safety of the passengers is in our hands. I have to stay vigilant. I am exhausted after work," he said.
Joe spends what little leisure time he has doing general chores at a Thai Buddhist temple in Yuen Long because he is a Buddhist. He also enjoys seeing his friends and having dinner with his partner.
Joe's daily routine is work, eat and sleep. He gets up at noon and eats his breakfast at lunch time, and his afternoon tea-time lunch is bread on the bus. If traffic is smooth, he can have 45 minutes for dinner, otherwise he has to shorten the dinner break because punctuality is paramount. Bus drivers very rarely gather for dinner after work.
The biggest problem, however, comes when nature calls. Therefore Joe has to time when he takes water. "I can bring bread and water with me on the bus, but I can't bring a toilet on board. Kidney disease is the most common illness for bus drivers,"
At the end of the interview, Joe wants me to remind readers that bus drivers have no control over the bus air-con temperature. "Thanks to the government, we're following Singapore's example of setting the optimal bus air-con temperature at 25 degrees. The temperature is fixed all year around. This is why the bus is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. But there is nothing the bus drivers can do. Tell your readers to stop blaming the drivers," he said.
(Shortly before this month's diary goes out, Joe quitted his bus driving job to start his own business, selling cosmetic products online. He explained: "If I fail, I'll go back to bus driving. Bus drivers are paid and treated badly so there's always a shortage of people willing to be bus drivers. I can therefore go back whenever I want to. I haven't had any pay rise for six years, and my bus driver routine is completely different to that of my family's. However, if my new business does well, I'll be able to make a living from it, and also get to spend more time with my family.")