HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's tram system, which has plied the city's streets for over a century, has been partially bought by a French firm to the consternation of some local heritage activists.
Since 1904, the green trams affectionately known as "ding dings" for the sound of their bells during clattering journeys across Hong Kong island, are a remnant of a bygone age when Hong Kong was but a sleepy, tree-lined British colony before becoming the skyscraper-packed metropolis of today.
The surprise announcement by French environmental and transportation giant Veolia that it had taken a 50 percent stake in the tram operator from Wharf Holdings, with government approval, was met with anger from some activists who said the public should have been consulted beforehand.
"This is a local, iconic mode of transport yet it was secretly sold to a French company," said Loy Ho, a spokesperson for Heritage Watch, a local action rights group set up after the controversial demolition in 2006 of the Star Ferry Clock Tower.
"This makes me very angry," she added. "People have an affection for it."
Veolia stressed that while it had a track record of building and modernizing transport systems across the world, the legacy of Hong Kong's trams would be respected.
"We fully understand that Hong Kong tramways is a unique piece of cultural heritage to Hong Kong people and we are committed to protecting and preserving it," said Cyrille du Peloux, the CEO of Veolia Transport in a statement.
Veolia has the option to buy the remainder of the company at a later date.
Hong Kong officials who've been strongly criticized in recent years for tearing down transport-linked landmarks like the Star Ferry Clock tower and Queen's Pier to allow for harbor reclamation, stressed this niche mode of transport wouldn't also fall victim to development.
"The trams are not only an important form of transportation, for Hong Kong people, the trams are an important part of the city's cultural history," Hong Kong's Transport Secretary Eva Cheng told reporters. "Both companies have pledged to us that they will respect this heritage and preserve the tramway's traditional services."
The trams attract around 230,000 passengers a day, who pay just HK$2 (26 cents) a ride. Like the Star Ferry, also run by Wharf, Hong Kong's tram system is a popular tourist attraction.
But the 161 trams -- the world's largest fleet of double-decker tram cars -- aren't known for their service standards and have lost money in recent years.
Prior to Wharf, the trams were owned by Jardines, a famous British "hong" or foreign trading house which was founded on the opium trade in the 1830's, and whose history is closely intertwined with that of the former colony.
Editing by Bill Tarrant