Hong Kong Pilots Restore a Memory on Wheels: A Vintage Double-Decker Bus

Hong Kong Pilots Restore a Memory on Wheels: A Vintage Double-Decker Bus

HONG KONG — Pedestrians stopped in their tracks and stared. Passengers in vehicles craned their necks and waved. Schoolboys in uniform ran like paparazzi angling for the perfect shot. They were all riveted by a cream-colored double-decker bus with ketchup-red trims on the top and bottom swerving last month into an open-air terminal.

Vintage buses of this variety, nicknamed “hot dog buses” for their lack of air conditioning, have not picked up passengers on the streets of Hong Kong for a decade. But this soot-streaked double-decker with missing panels and a rusty engine had been lovingly restored and is owned by two pilots, Luca Tong and Kobee Ko, who have never outgrown their childhood passion for buses.

When the coronavirus pandemic grounded the global aviation industry and cut their flight hours, the pilots — used to steering more sophisticated machinery at 600 miles per hour while cruising in the skies — pooled their savings to refurbish the hot dog bus. To them, it was a physical manifestation of their youth in the 1980s and ’90s, before pandemic restrictions and a sweeping political crackdown gripped the city.

“Back then, there was freedom, money and a whole lot of warmth,” Mr. Tong, 35, said last month. “The bus has the feeling of Hong Kong at that time, but that feeling is disappearing from Hong Kong.”

The bus was among a fleet of 369 introduced in 1986 and retired in 2012. Made by Britain’s Alexander Dennis for Hong Kong’s Kowloon Motor Bus Company under the moniker Dennis Dragon, the vehicles were originally designed to fit air-conditioning units at the back window. But they were never installed because it would have cost more to ride an air-conditioned bus.

And so the hot dog buses trundled along for another quarter of a century. With the introduction of air-conditioned subway trains and 14-seater minibuses in the city, commuters came to prefer more comfortable conditions during Hong Kong’s hot, sticky summers. One by one, hot dog buses, with their windows that slid open to let in the breeze, were replaced by newer models with sealed windows and powerful air-conditioning.

Danny Chan, a former transportation journalist who co-founded the Hong Kong Transport Society in 1989, said that for obsessives, the appeal of buses lay in memorizing quotidian details like bus routes and schedules, specifications and models.

“Every bus ride becomes a treat,” he said. “You get to anticipate the interesting things you will come across on the bus.”

Many enthusiasts collect miniatures of bus models or ones tricked out with parts that could be maneuvered via remote control. Others like to photograph buses debuting or retiring. When the remaining hot dog buses owned by the K.M.B. completed their final rotation on May 8, 2012, throngs of cheering fans waved farewell with smartphones and camcorders held aloft.

But Mr. Tong and Mr. Ko could not wave their passion goodbye.

“Not many people will keep memories physically rather than taking videos or photos,” Mr. Ko, 32, said. “Our memory is one that can move.”

He grew up watching his father drive trucks and minibuses, deftly weaving the large vehicles in and out of thoroughfares. Growing up in a cramped government-subsidized apartment, he drew hundreds of buses from memory and fantasized about living in one. Owning one was a fulfillment of a childhood dream.

In 2016, before the two colleagues met, Mr. Tong purchased an out-of-service bus from a vehicle workshop with another colleague for about $765,600. When Mr. Tong’s friend sold his share of the bus one year later, Mr. Tong asked Mr. Ko and a third pilot friend to become the bus’s joint owners.

They had intended to hire experienced mechanics to refurbish the bus, but their profession was plunged into uncertainty when the coronavirus spread around the world. Flights dried up amid the city’s strict travel restrictions, and their airline placed them on contracts that almost halved their salaries and allowances, the pilots said. (The bus’s third owner has since emigrated from Hong Kong.)

With a surplus of time, the pilots decided to take on the repairs themselves. “We reached a crossroads between doing something and letting it rot,” Mr. Tong said.

They scoured eBay, Facebook and Instagram for antique parts. Mr. Ko tinkered and adapted the old parts to their bus. Mr. Tong watched old news interviews for the correct font and placement of bus stickers and decals, documenting the whole process on Instagram.

Traveling to the outskirts of Hong Kong, where the bus is usually parked in an open-air lot, they washed, scrubbed, hammered and replaced panels. They unscrewed thousands of old rivets. They even removed several bird’s nests from the roof of the bus.

The maintenance costs, nearly $38,000, came mostly from the pilots’ savings. The repairs were also partly funded by other bus enthusiasts in return for memorabilia that the pilots had refurbished separately to sell.

After giving the bus a fresh coat of paint, Mr. Tong and Mr. Ko relished driving it into town with the windows open, letting in a cool breeze — and fuel fumes. On a recent trip, the diesel engine rumbled and the exhaust fan whirred and whistled. A prerecorded voice on loudspeakers announced approaching stops in a singsong tone, as the opening doors beeped and the destination signs flipped at the front.

Other bus drivers gave them thumbs-up at traffic stops.

Once in a while, they would park the bus for a few hours at a terminal by the harbor front, inviting other enthusiasts onboard.

Ernest Chang, 19, was among a few dozen superfans who took a flurry of photos of the bus at the terminal. During his early childhood, before hot dog buses were taken out of service, he said, he tried to avoid riding them to school, preferring vehicles with air conditioning.

“If I saw a hot dog bus coming, I would wait for another bus to arrive,” said Mr. Chang. “Now, all I want is to ride on one again.”

Wearing a face mask with a pattern of cartoon buses, Elke Fung, a 39-year-old garment merchandiser, said she had taken the day off work to tour the bus with her 4-year-old son, who plays with a miniature version of the bus.

“I feel really happy,” said Ms. Fung, who used to ride hot dog buses in high school. “All my memories came back.”

There are challenges to owning a hot dog bus.

As Hong Kong has eased travel and quarantine restrictions, Mr. Tong and Mr. Ko have begun flying more. And just as thousands of people are migrating from Hong Kong, Mr. Tong says he intends to go abroad for his children’s education. Mr. Ko is not certain he can keep up with the heavy maintenance by himself when Mr. Tong goes.

The pilots have considered moving the hot dog bus to a country like Australia that has more affordable indoor parking spaces for buses and special historical vehicle licenses for carrying passengers. The Sydney Bus Museum already houses two historical Hong Kong buses.

For now, the men hope to continue driving the bus for a good while in Hong Kong.

“I really treasure the history of this place, from its people to the buildings,” Mr. Tong said, adding: “Memories live on, albeit in a different part of the world.”

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