The Star Ferry - Hong Kong

The Star Ferry - Hong Kong

This New Year began for me with a trip to one of my favourite cities, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong currently bills itself as “Asia’s World City” and it is certainly a very diverse and cosmopolitan place. Hong Kong is famously a very densely populated city, but it’s also relatively easy to escape from the bustling streets to the much quieter atmosphere of the outlying islands or the hills of the New Territories. Amidst the tightly crowded skyscrapers and modern buildings amongst the streets and back-alleys it’s also possible to find traces of old Hong Kong – solid colonial era buildings and smoky, antique Chinese temples. One of my most favourite things in Hong Kong is the Star Ferry.

The Star Ferry now plies only two routes across the shimmering turquoise waters of Victoria Harbour. From Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon side, to Wan Chai and Central, Hong Kong island side (when I first visited Hong Kong several years ago it then plied four routes, but the routes to Hung Hom ceased last year). 

These quaint little boats, painted green and white, are quietly iconic. They are such a part of the fabric of Hong Kong that it would be hard to imagine the place without them. They are rather like a maritime version of London’s old red Routemaster buses.

Before the first regular ferry service people had always crossed the harbour strait in small sampans, but in 1870 a twin-screw wooden hulled boat from England, owned by a man named Grant Smith, began to ferry people from one side to the other. However, it wasn’t until 1888 that a regular scheduled service was set up. 

The “Kowloon Ferry Company” was founded by a Parsee merchant, a former cook, opium trader, and later hotel entrepreneur, named Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, who bought Smith’s boat. He later acquired two steam boats, named the Morning Star and the Evening Star. Within ten years the popularity of the service meant he was able to expand his fleet to four steam boats, the two new vessels being the Rising Star and the Guiding Star. Each boat could take up to one hundred passengers.  A local newspaper reported in 1888 that the ferry ran at all hours between Pedders Wharf and Tsim Sha Tsui on a 40 minute to one hour trip. On Mondays and Fridays, the service halted for the boat’s coaling. The first four boats were each single deck vessels, later the company would begin to run boats with two decks like those still in service today. The company was incorporated in 1898, becoming the “Star Ferry Company,” and was sold in the same year, just before Dorabjee’s retirement to India. It is said that the company name was inspired by the opening lines of Dorabjee’s favourite poem:

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar, 
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Today’s twin piers at Tsim Sha Tsui were built in the early 1950s. The present piers at Central were recently relocated due to foreshore reclamation work; the new fourth-generation building was modelled after the second-generation one which served the route a hundred years ago. 

Many of the boats currently in service in the Star Ferry fleet also date back to the 1950s, although a couple were built as recently as the late 1980s. The boats have a charm of their own which is hard to describe, it’s better to experience it first hand. They seem quaintly old fashioned in many ways, but they are still very much a functioning part of modern Hong Kong’s public transport system. The company does run a harbour tour route, but the ferry service itself is by no means a mere tourist attraction, albeit that most of the current guidebooks list the ferries as a ‘must see’ element of a stay in Hong Kong. The Star Ferry certainly is the pleasantest way to cross from the mainland to the island or back again. It provides a picturesque view no matter what time of the day or night one chooses to cross. And the harbour itself is always so dynamic that there is always something to see – the graceful arc of a sea kite gliding on the wing and occasionally dropping to the water in the act of fishing, or a sampan precariously bobbing about like a popped champagne cork, looking as though it’s about to get clobbered by the ferry itself as it steams purposefully ahead across the strait, only to have the danger reversed moments later as one sees a giant cruise liner or heavily laden coaster bearing down on the ferry from the other side. 

Each crossing is a lively affair with the boat usually packed to the gunwales with passengers on both decks. The upper deck (slightly more expensive) is somewhat more genteel and offers better shelter fore and aft; the lower deck (slightly less expensive) is liable to a bit more noise and pungent diesel smells from the open doors of the roaring engine rooms below, but neither is particularly costly at either HK$2.50-HK$3.00 one way (roughly equivalent to 25 or 30 pence at present in the UK). The benches on each deck still look wonderfully Edwardian and are eminently functional with the back piece easily being tilted manually one way or the other depending on the direction of travel.

The crossing feels like a timeless part of Hong Kong’s existence. One sits on the boat or stands by the rail looking out at the restless, ever-changing face of the city on either side of the harbour. That timelessness is well caught in the opening pages of Richard Mason’s classic Hong Kong novel, The World of Suzie Wong (1957):

“The ferryboat came churning alongside and the crowd moved forward. We jostled together up the gangplank and chose one of the slatted bench-seats on the covered top-deck. The ferries were Chinese owned and run, and very efficient, and we had hardly sat down before the water was churning again, the engines rumbling, the boat palpitating – and we were moving off busily past the Kowloon wharves, past anchored merchant-ships, past great clusters of junks. Ahead, on the island across the channel, was Hong Kong, squeezed into a coastal strip a few hundred yards wide, with the miniature skyscrapers in the centre and on either side the long waterfront, stretching for miles, wedged with sampans and junks; behind rose the steep escarpment of the Peak, shedding the town and the lower social orders as it climbed, until at the higher altitudes there remained only a sprinkling of white bungalows and luxury flats inhabited by the elite.”

All that has changed in this description today would be that the skyscrapers are no longer miniature, but rank as some of the tallest in the world, and – sadly – there are no more picturesque looking junks beyond one or two occasional tourist curiosities. There are still plenty of sampans though.

I took these accompanying pictures on a crossing from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central shortly before the Chinese New Year celebrations last month. The first photo shows the Day Star, built in 1964; and the second picture shows the Meridian Star, built in 1958, moored alongside the Tsim Sha Tsui pier. The remaining photos are all of the Northern Star, built in 1959. Each has the capacity to seat 576 people.

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