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.”)
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: My family is here. Otherwise, I can’t see anything positive about Hong Kong. Things are so expensive, everyone is living under huge pressure. People lose their energy.
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: Mainland investors, they push up property prices in Hong Kong. Rent in Yuen Long is higher than in Kwai Chung. You know why? It is because Yuen Long is closer to the mainland.
Q: What does Hong Kong have to do to be sustainable?
A: Can we get rid of Beijing? We can’t, right? When the British were here, we were second-class. But the thing is in the old days, everyone could make a living, life was much easier. Now, life is very difficult. People from the mainland make everything so expensive, from property to baby milk formula. The Hong Kong government no longer works for us, its policy is not to make our life better but to help the mainland take a bigger and bigger slice of every aspect of our economy.