Hong Kong has thousands of bus fans, who are enthralled by the city's some 6,000 buses.
Updated Jan. 3, 2014 10:34 p.m. ET
Hong Kong's double-decker buses have a dedicated following. Bus fan Dennis Law takes WSJ's Te-Ping Chen on some of his favorite routes. Photo: Philip Chan
Hong Kong's paparazzi stalk the city's tycoons, movie actors and pop singers. Philip Chan is after something bigger.
On a sunny day in the Kowloon City neighborhood, he watches his 14-foot-tall prey round a corner, far more nimbly than its size would suggest. Checking traffic, he steps off the curb and clicks—but the glare off the side is too bright and the shot is ruined.
The 27-year-old Mr. Chan gets back into position and waits. He knows the schedule: another double-decker bus should be along shortly.
"Buses are like different movie stars," he says, flipping through a seemingly identical montage of bus photos on his digital camera. "Everyone has their favorite."
Mr. Chan, an accountant, is one of Hong Kong's thousands of bus fans, ranging from young students to retirees, who are enthralled by the city's some 6,000 buses. They linger by bus depots and lurk near highway ramps, angling for the best shots. They form fan clubs, eagerly swap the latest gossip about changes in bus models and film their own rides, which they share online with anyone who wants to follow along (spoiler alert: they aren't always scintillating).
The Bus Stops Here
In a city where owning a car can be prohibitively expensive, fans say buses are a linchpin in Hong Kong's identity, one of the first forms of mass transport established after an era of rickshaws and carriages. The city still boasts double-decker vehicles—a legacy of its British colonial past—which are trimmed in bright colors and often dressed up as rolling billboards touting everything from jewelry to tutoring services.
Too wide to pass side-by-side on the city's narrowest roads, the buses careen around cliff-top streets eliciting gasps from tourists, who grab the upper deck front seats for the most dramatic views. There are enough bus fans to support more than half-a-dozen shops selling miniature bus models (in a city of seven million), though others have taken the more extreme step of buying retired buses and storing them in suburban lots.
"I get a very special feeling when riding a bus," says Dennis Law, 35, a photographer and local bus aficionado. "It's a kind of freedom, a leisure feeling."
His favorite is a new model of the red and yellow Enviro500 MMC, built by U.K. bus builder Alexander Dennis Limited, launched last year. "It's quite luxurious," says Mr. Law. "It feels like you're in a race car."
Others are puzzled by bus groupies, given that Hong Kong boasts what is often ranked among the world's best subway systems. "I think they're crazy. The bus is very slow. I hate it," says homemaker Yu Kaman, 27.
When the city's last non-air-conditioned bus was retired in 2012, the bus fans, who call them "hot dogs," gathered for the final ride, waving farewell signs and popping flashes. Few others lamented the end of the sticky commutes in the city's subtropical climate.
While bus fans express their love of a good ride in different ways, for many, the real purpose is to show off their artwork—thousands of pictures of buses, head on, turning, in profile and occasionally from above. The problem is there are a limited number of models roaming the city's streets and only so many ways to shoot a bus.
To make their portraits stand out, the bus fans plan their shots with the precision of wildlife photographers shooting a lion hunt. They seek out the ideal location and wait for the light to be just right, occasionally bolting into traffic to capture the perfect moment.
One of Mr. Law's favorite spots is in front of the Hong Kong Space Museum in Kowloon, just steps from Victoria Harbour, because he likes the way buses turn in front of the domed building.
To avoid deep shadows, he shoots from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from noon to 2 p.m. In the late afternoon, he will cross the harbor to Victoria Park to capture westbound buses.
Some bus photographers try to capture striking backdrops behind buses—the city's hallmark mix of decrepit high-rises and neon signs, for example. Others, like Mr. Chan, focus on the ever-changing advertisements plastered on the buses.
The subject matter, though, can be limited. "There are too many jewelry ads," says Mr. Chan.
Just before Halloween, a friend excitedly text-messaged Mr. Chan saying that he had spotted a bus in a gritty working-class neighborhood with an ad featuring a pair of M&M characters running uphill toward a haunted house.
Mr. Chan set off and snapped the bus, a particularly coveted target, he says, because it bore a wraparound version of that ad, a rarity in town. "It would be better if there was more sunshine out—it would make it even prettier—but the photo is still OK," he says
The perfect bus portrait, according to Mr. Law, has the subject positioned at a 45-degree angle showing the full length of the vehicle as well as its front. But like any artist, he says, rules are made to be broken. "While the 45-degree rule normally applies, I myself look for variations," he says. In one photograph that he especially prizes, he was able to capture a bus with a Nikon ad featuring pop star Joey Yung juxtaposed against a billboard at a bus stop featuring the same advertisement.
The photographers can put bus drivers in an awkward position, especially regarding issues of safety, as fans dart into the street to get their shot. Drivers don't want to get snapped with their eyes off the road. "I try not to look at the camera though, it might look a bit weird," said Gary Leung, a driver for Kowloon Motor Bus, the city's largest bus company.
Mr. Leung, 27, has sympathy for the bus fans—after all, he's one himself, having recently quit his job at a Big Four accounting firm to fulfill his dream of sitting behind the wheel. At a bright, outdoor bus terminal, Mr. Leung said he is pleased with his new career. "Of course the salary cannot compare," he says. "But I love it. Every day feels like being on holiday."