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.
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: Delicious food. We’ve got lots of eateries serving all sorts of tasty food. There are plenty of food choices wherever we are.
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: The pro-big business government. The government’s policies are always pro-big business. It is very difficult for small businesses to survive in Hong Kong. The Link REIT is an example. I grew up at Mei Lam Estate in Shatin. I’m still living there. It used to be a relaxing and people-friendly place. Since the Housing Authority sold the shopping centre and car park to Link REIT, everything has changed. All the family-run little shops have been replaced by big chains. There was a toy store where I bought all my toys, I know the shop owner very well, but it was forced to shut down. There are now security guards patrolling the shopping centre to make sure we don’t break any rules. Roads have been narrowed so whoever parks their car on the roadside brings inconvenience to other road users. They do this because they want to make sure everyone parks their car in the car park, even if you are only stopping by the roadside for a few minutes.
Q: What does Hong Kong need to do for it to be sustainable?
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 don’t eat at fast food chains and don’t shop at supermarket chains. Hong Kong is already dominated by big retailing and property interests. I want to support small businesses instead.