MTR Platform, Causeway Bay
September 11, 2009

Subway stations throughout the world share common cacophony: coins clattering out of ticket machines, beeping turnstiles, people talking on mobile phones, crowds shuffling themselves to and from the platform. Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway--the MTR--is no exception. But Hong Kong's transit system has an additional, unique sound throughout its stations: a sound I never heard elsewhere.

Over my past days visiting Hong Kong I gradually became aware of a certain ubiquitous tune. After stepping off every train and walking through the exit turnstile, I always heard the same music. It didn't matter which station I had just arrived into. It didn't matter whether the station was empty or full, small or large. It made no difference if noisy crowds were passing through. The same tune was audible at every station exit.

It was kind of a catchy tune. It didn't sound like an actual musician performing--more a MIDI staccato with occasional background chords. There were lots of high notes--probably why I was consistently able to hear the music even above heavy crowd noise.

One afternoon with a free moment, I decided to track down just where this music (which had become stuck in my head) was coming from. At the station nearest where I was staying (Heng Fa Chuen, towards the eastern end of the Island Line) I traced the beeping to its source. Just outside the station entrance, before the ticket machines and turnstiles, I found a stainless steel kiosk. There was no printed text anywhere on it. Only one color--a dull blue--kept the device from being monochrome metal. The machine kept repeating the same tune.

MTR Kiosk for Visually
Impaired, Heng Fa Chuen
A panel crowning the machine had a small speaker to the right. That's where the music was coming from. The remaining surface was taken up by raised lines connecting oddly shaped blocks. The only instructions were in Braille.

Once I finally saw what it was, it was immdiately obvious what function the device served. The lines formed a relief map of the station itself. Pressing a button beneath the speaker gave a recorded message in Cantonese--I assume further description of the station layout and amenities.

Perhaps other cities also have similar systems throughout their subway systems. I recall the trains in Tokyo had different tunes piped into various stations. But those were broadcast onto the platforms, I think partly for ambience, partly to differentiate one station from another by using a tune unique to each station. I don't think the music I heard in Tokyo's subway system was used to assist the visually impaired with navigation.

Whether or not these devices are common throughout other transit networks, it was the first time I saw one and thought it was cool. The tune loops every couple minutes; I recorded it. Listen for yourself, if you'd like to hear the sound of the Hong Kong MTR:

Hong Kong MTR Kiosk for Visually Impaired MP3 file 1.7 MB 2:23