What caused the accident?
Something has ripped the roof off the right tram, and its driver's window is smashed (you can see what's left of the roof lying on the ground to the right). The canvas cover from the left tram is nowhere in sight, and the roof and conductor arm on the middle tram are bent out of shape. But what caused all the damage?
One suggestion is that it was a simple collision. The fact that the trams are on a corner makes that a possibility.
But the photo comes from a collection of photos showing typhoon damage, so I wonder if that's what we're looking at here. Certainly the ground looks wet. And the crowd aren't interested in the trams at all, instead they're looking out to sea. Are there sunken ships in the harbour?
The location is Arsenal Street in Wanchai, roughly opposite where Asian House stands today. At the time of this photo, the Wanchai reclamation and Hennessy Road are still on the drawing board. So trams had to make a sharp left turn from Queen's Road into Arsenal Street, then a sharp right turn from Arsenal Street onto the Praya (the seafront - today's Johnston Road). We're looking at this right turn.
Just out of view to the right was the Soldiers & Sailors Home, and over on the left is the wall at the eastern end of the military land that stretched across today's Admiralty district. There's a crowd of people milling around on the left though, so it seems that the shoreline here was still open to the public?
The trams give us clues. First there's the advertising for "Morinaga's Milk Caramels", and "Morinaga's Ch...". Morinaga, a Japanese confectioner, is still in business today and still sells Milk Caramels and Chocolates, the hidden word on the second tram. According to their website they launched their Milk Caramel product in 1914, so it's later than that.
Then there are the trams themselves. The Tramways website talks us through the generations:
- 1904 – Single-deck trams begin running
- 1912 – An open, upstairs deck is added
- 1918 – A canvas cover is added to the upper deck
That pushes the date of the photo forward to some time after 1918. There's no sign of the Wanchai Reclamation work yet, so I'll guess it was taken around 1920.
[Update: In the comments below you'll see this has been confirmed to be damage from the typhoon in August, 1923.]
Other odds and ends
If you look carefully above the doors, you can see that the class is written there. Downstairs there was a small first class section at the front, and a larger third class section at the back. The easiest way to spot the difference is by the windows: First class gets glass, while third class gets wooden shutters. Wikipedia says that the whole top floor was for first class passengers.
Tram number 56 on the left is signed as heading to Causeway Bay, while the tram on the right is heading west to Whitty Street. The same destinations are still shown on trams today.
Any more information?
I've tried several searches through old newspapers over years 1900-1920: "tram accident", "arsenal accident", "arsenal street". Each search returned several results, but none were relevant to this photo.
I had better luck in the book 'Early Hong Kong Transport' by Cheng Po Hung. On page 231 there's a print that must have come from the same negative, but was cropped to give a wider view. It clearly shows the building on the right, and a wall with gate on the left left. He has titled the photo:
Three damaged trams at the scene of a traffic accident on Arsenal Street, c.1915. On the right is the second "Sailors' Home" (Sailors' Club).
What else can you tell us about this photo?