Friday, 10 April 2015
the hong kong barrow
It’s a question that I’m asked frequently whenever I’m back in the UK, and my answer always includes a comment on the territory’s capacity for change. In fact, Hong Kong changes so rapidly that I notice differences after an absence of only a few months, and were I to stay away for a decade, I’m sure that I would find the place unrecognizable.
However, there is one thing that hasn’t changed since I first came here more than 40 years ago: the Hong Kong barrow.
Nowadays, these barrows come in a range of different sizes, but in the 1970s there was just the one. And the basic design hasn’t changed: anyone with rudimentary welding skills could put one together from pieces of angled steel, with steel strips to form a load platform, steel tubing, a couple of steel rods and four polyurethane wheels. Such barrows can be seen everywhere in Hong Kong—old ladies pushing mounds of cardboard, which they can sell for recycling; street sweepers, whose outsize barrows are used to hold the detritus they have swept up from the city’s streets—and anything heavy or bulky that has to be moved, even a short distance, can be more easily transported to wherever it needs to go with a Hong Kong barrow.
And the barrow can be folded up when not in use:
The following photographs provide some examples of the barrow in action.
Although I consider the Hong Kong barrow to be a good design, this doesn’t help when a task is attempted for which the barrow is singularly unsuited. I picked up some sense of this surprisingly common practice when I came to work at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School in 1974. Here, a barrow was the preferred means of launching a sailing dinghy!
However, probably the most awkward task that I’ve ever witnessed being attempted using the Hong Kong barrow (in this case two barrows) took place a couple of months ago. I was returning home along the path documented in Journey to the West: Part 5 when I encountered two men with barrows on the tight bend shown in the following photograph:
The men were trying to move three or four construction panels—the type that can be used to build a superior type of shack—which were half as wide again as a domestic door and almost twice as long. The barrow under the load at the back faced the normal way, while the barrow at the front faced backwards. The two were joined by a length of rope, which I imagine was done to stop the front barrow being pulled from underneath the load but which severely restricted the manoeuvrability of the rear barrow.
As can be seen in the photo, there is a stanchion to support the power pole and a lamp-post on the outside of the bend. Despite their efforts, the men couldn’t manoeuvre the panels past these obstacles, partly because the path is less than a metre wide.
Watching someone attempt the nearly impossible is usually interesting, but after about five minutes, during which no progress was made and the problem seemed insoluble, I lost interest, dismounted, lifted my bike down into the ditch and continued on my way. The men must have solved the problem eventually though, because when I passed that way again the following day, the path was clear. No discarded panels in the ditch. I wonder how they did it. And how long it took.