You may think hailing one of the many taxis off the road is the right way to get around in Hong Kong, but locals might disagree.
Instead, some suggest taking one of Hong Kong’s Red Minibuses (RMB), or Public Light Buses, which are iconic parts of the busy and bustling city to get you to wherever you’re headed (and for a fraction of a taxi fare, too).
Cheap and speedy with no fixed route or fare, these buses are known for unapologetically defying so many rules of the road, but also for taking passengers to hard-to-reach areas. Over time, the RMB have carved their own place within the hearts of Hong Kongers and left their mark on the city’s cultural landscape.
Though they have been around for the better part of 50 years, these handy modes of transport seem to be slowly disappearing and getting lost within Hong Kong’s complex and ever-improving public transport network of MTR subways, trams, taxis and more. This is much to the disappointment of Hong Kong music collective and transient think-tank, Yeti Out.
The collective loves all the quirks -- and perks -- that come with riding the famously untamed and unregulated Red Minibuses. Yeti Out, who bridges east and west with its series of pop-up raves, art installations and record releases celebrates the euphoria of late nights and early mornings -- much like the RMB. Its projects are a reflection of youth movements that shape creative culture in cities that never sleep and are based in London, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
We linked up with the members of the collective to better understand their passion for these red-topped vans that take you on a no-frills trip from A to B (at least most of the time).
The Red Minibuses are certainly not a new thing for Hong Kong, instead, they have an interesting origin story which dates back to the British colonial era. The minibuses “started as a semi-illegal transportation born out of the 1967 riots,” says Arthur Bray, one of the founders of Yeti Out.
The riots were led by communists who were inspired by the Cultural Revolution happening in China at the time. Rioters became determined to overthrow the British presence in Hong Kong, leaving the city gripped by protests and strikes. As bus drivers joined in on the protests, it brought the main line of public transport to a stop and led to local minibus services stepping in.
Though previously only serving the rural New Territories, during the riots, these minibuses started picking up new passengers and entering new territory, thereby “helping the public get to their homes and other destinations while public transports were on boycott,” says Arthur. They operated illegally, without passenger serving licenses, though the government turned a blind eye.
After the riots, in 1969, the government legalised these means of transport, seeing the value in them. Ever since, explains Arthur, these red minibuses have “serviced a sector of society that favors it as a fast and speedy alternative to double decker buses, cabs and the metro.”
The Red Minibuses have always had a fraught relationship with the Hong Kong government, though. As mentioned by Arthur and today, “the government is giving out fewer licenses to Red Minibuses (which are privately owned and rented) than its counterpart Green Minibuses (ran by government and more prominently seen in Hong Kong island rather than Kowloon and New Territories).
This is why it's more important now than ever to ride the Red Minibuses; to keep independent businesses alive and show that they're very much in use and serve a huge sector of Hong Kong society.”
What makes these minibuses so unique?
The features that make these buses so eccentric is what has made them so beloved in Hong Kong. They account for over 1.7 million rides a day in 2019, according to the South China Morning Post and provide an effective and affordable transport option for many commuters and working class people.
You simply hail a Red Minibus from the street curb, just like a taxi. Once you enter, you pay a fee to the driver, usually around HK$20 in cash or change. When you want to get off, passengers will call out to the driver, with him raising his hand to indicate he has heard you. Essentially, you can stop almost anywhere along the route.
Prices can change depending on weather conditions (like typhoons) and based on demand -- like late at night when there are no other public transport options. With the Red Minibuses being privately-owned, there is more control in the hands of the driver who either owns or rents the minivan. Sometimes routes are left unfinished if there are only a few passengers left and routes may change to work around traffic.
Today, there are approximately 1,000 of these Red Minibuses in existence. Working round the clock to get as many passengers and trips in as possible, they are fast, flexible and accessible and bring so much character to the city’s streets. They reflect the Hong Kong spirit and fast-paced mode of life, which is just one of the reasons why Arthur cherishes them so much.
Yeti Out on 10 reasons why Red Minibuses are better than your average public transport
1. You can get on wherever the fuck you want
2. You can get off whereever the fuck you want
3. You get to Yuen Long from Mong Kok in 20 minutes
4. Barefoot driving is swaggy af
5. You don't need to wear a seatbelt like a green bus baby
6. Drivers are the real selectors expect classic canto ballets to hardcore rave tracks on repeat - Beyond to MP4, keep your Shazam on...
7. If you know the driver, you can reserve seats
8. Unfortunately, the MTR expansion is killing red minibuses, but since drivers are self-employed & rent their own Vans (as opposed to green buses' franchise business) they choose their own hours (and speed :P) so they can do more rounds and make more $$$... which means, pedal to the floor, we get home quicker ;)
9. Red Minibuses "typhoon rates" during the monsoon season are still cheaper than cabs
10. Bossman driver decides on his own routes, so fuck a bus schedule sonnnnn
Some of the RMB routes can take you all the way from Tai Po, a fishing port district located to the North of the Island, to Mong Kok, one of the busiest shopping districts, bang in the center of Hong Kong.
Others include: Tsuen Wan to Kwun Tong, Kwun Tong to Mong Kok, Yuen Long to Jordan Road and more, many routes on top of the cheap price are scenic and provide great views of the island.
“Whether it's going through town for meetings, leaving the bustling downtown to the coasts of Shek O to Sai Kung, or a late night trip back from Hong Kong's bar strip to Kowloon side. Each ride is guaranteed to be shaky but nonetheless packed with adrenaline and provides a quick overview of Hong Kong's dynamic cityscape,” says Arthur.
To celebrate the Red Minibuses, Yeti Out threw a party on the theme of the Red Minibuses. “We threw a party celebrating the Red Minibus as a traditional mode of transport that's often overlooked by innovation and the fast, developing city that is Hong Kong. This became the core theme of the party, and our friend and graffiti writer XEME did a custom piece painting a toy bus” in addition to t-shirts, keychains and more. The collective also collaborated with the city’s standing minibus sign painter, Mak Kam-san on the artwork for the party.
Check out their merch, which is available on the Yeti Out online shop.