HONG KONG: Trundling along slowly against a backdrop of glittering skyscrapers, Hong Kong's trams are entering a new phase of their life but their well-loved retro look is here to stay.

Since 2011 a handful of vehicles have had their wooden seats replaced and some now have air conditioning, but the network's operator says that the small steps towards modernisation will remain subtle.

The 109-year-old trams, fondly referred to as “ding ding” from the sound of their bells, retain a special place in the hearts of Hong Kongers, despite their sharp contrast to the rest of the fast-paced Asian metropolis.

“We ensure that the facelift maintains the iconic image of the trams,” Hong Kong Tramways managing director Tsang Wing-hang told AFP.

“The newly renovated tram is a combination of modern interior design with traditional tram body exterior.”

Every day the city's 163 trams carry 230,000 passengers, from office workers and students to tourists, all travelling on what is the largest double-deck tram system in the world.

The city's network has lived through Japanese occupation, Hong Kong's transformation into one of the world's biggest financial hubs and the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

It has also survived the development of modern public transport, including a vast subway system, making it a rare symbol of the city's rich history while much of Hong Kong's colonial heritage has been demolished.

The double-decker streetcars, with their facades in red, green and blue, are nowadays emblazoned with advertising, but most still operate without air conditioning and rattle along at the speed of a bicycle.

They also go against the tide of rising prices in the city, with a flat fare of just HK$2.30 (30 US cents) for a ride anywhere on the 120-stop system. A leisurely tram trip is one of the best ways to see the many faces of the former British colony, from its bustling financial district, traditional markets and colourful nightlife hotspots.

“It has become a Hong Kong symbol. Hong Kong would not be the same without the sound of the 'ding ding',” 61-year-old retiree Kuok Yee-tung said as he took his daily tram ride across the city, his favourite pastime.

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