The Star Ferry’s Long Farewell

Hong Kong people aren’t very sentimental, but when Chan Tsu-wing told me about his life as a coxswain, I noticed a certain wistfulness creep into in his words.

“I love my job — it gives me the best view of the city,” he said while piloting the 45-year-old Silver Star across Victoria Harbour. He waved a hand across the view of emerald water bracketed by skyscrapers and mountains. “Look at this. This is the best place in the world.”

Chan has crossed the harbour thousands of times in his 27-year career with the Star Ferry, shuttling generations of commuters and tourists between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, witnessing the city’s stranglehold on the harbour grow tighter every year.

When Chan first joined the Star Ferry in 1984, Victoria Harbour was nearly half a mile wider than it is today. Over the next two decades of his career, the water grew rougher and more polluted. Marine life all but vanished. Chan told me that he used to see dolphins in the harbour, but no more.

Of course, the harbour’s fortunes have steadily improved over the past few years. Land reclamation in the harbour is now illegal, thanks to the 1997 Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, and the last reclamation project will be completed within a few years. Pollution is dropping and, although the dolphins have not returned — they are nearly extinct in Hong Kong’s waters — other sea creatures have.

The Star Ferry has not fared so well. Although its heyday as the main form of cross-harbour transport ended in 1972, when the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened, it remained the choice of frugal commuters who appreciated the low fares and refreshing breeze. But in 2006, the Star Ferry’s Central pier was controversially demolished and relocated to the edge of newly-reclaimed land, about 500 metres further away from the district’s office buildings. Commuters jumped ship to buses and the MTR; ridership plummeted by 18 percent.

It never recovered. Today, ferries on two of the Star Ferry’s four routes sailed for the last time before ferry service between Hung Hom, Wan Chai and Central is cancelled, effective tomorrow. Though the Hong Kong government put out a tender for other ferry operators to take over the routes, no one was interested.

What is lost by the end of the Star Ferry’s services in Hung Hom? An alternative to the buses, which crowd Hong Kong’s overburdened roads and contribute to its increasingly dire air pollution (many of the buses are old and highly polluting, yet the bus companies are in no hurry to replace them, and the government is reluctant to push). A direct link between neighbourhoods whose fortunes have historically depended on the harbour. But most importantly, what’s lost is a tangible part of Hong Kong’s connection to the harbour, the very body of water to which it owes its existence.

The Star Ferry’s routes between Tsim Sha Tsui, Wan Chai and Central are still crowded with passengers, despite the overall decline in ridership. But with the Hung Hom routes gone, I’m certain it won’t be long before even the main routes are scaled back, too.

Last year, I asked Catherine Wong, the Star Ferry’s PR officer, what the company planned to do about its dwindling number of riders. Increased revenue from shop rentals and advertising can help staunch the loss of profit, she said, and the company hopes that the further development of tourist infrastructure around its ferry piers will stabilize ridership.

But she also said the company is pressing the government to offer it the same kind of subsidies it gives the ferry companies that provide service to Hong Kong’s outlying islands. “Star Ferry needs similar government incentives and initiatives to do more to assist [it] in sustaining its business’ survival,” she wrote in an email. “It will never be enough. We would appreciate more.”

I’m not sure that more will come. Hong Kong’s government lavishes subsidies on businesses when it proves politically expedient, but raises the flag of laissez-faire capitalism when pressed to help anything from which it derives no obvious benefit. It also seems to be going out of its way to sabotage the Star Ferry’s business. As if the damage caused by the relocation of the Central pier wasn’t enough, the government now plans to move the Wan Chai pier further out to sea, and it also wants to relocate the bus terminus that brings tens of thousands of commuters to the Tsim Sha Tsui pier each day, replacing it with a tourist-friendly “piazza.”

The government, it seems, has decided that the Star Ferry no longer deserves to be considered a piece of essential infrastructure. Instead, its future is that of a plaything for tourists, who can amuse themselves with harbour views and the old-timey atmosphere of polished wooden decks and ageing men in sailor’s uniforms.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/6996335[/vimeo]

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday March 31 2011at 10:03 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Politics, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

6 Responses to “The Star Ferry’s Long Farewell”

  • YTSL says:

    The Hong Kong tourism authorities just don’t get it, do they? It’s amazing how intent they seem to be to “Disneyize” section of Hong Kong that are teeming with interesting life and are part of that interesting life itself — and to what end seeing that they can’t make Hong Kong Disneyland turn a profit after all these years!

  • No kidding. What I fear most is that, if the bus terminus is relocated, the antiseptic atmosphere of the Avenue of Stars will spread to the ferry pier, which is the only part of the TST waterfront that resembles real life. The rest is a wasteland of jostling tour groups and people who don’t have any meaningful connection to the city. It’s like the Trevi Fountain but with cheap tiles instead of Italian marble.

  • Phil says:

    Who needs one of the worlds most famous vistas and a century old transport route when you can get your picture snapped in front of some bright-coloured plastic along the waterfront.

    Someone please kill me now.

  • C. Szabla says:

    The photos here really capture the elegaic tone. The first one, especially, succeeds at conveying Chan’s melancholy.

    That said, I wonder how much these lamentations amount to preserving a tradition for its own sake — one that arose out of a relatively recent, practical need, at that. How many people actually commuted on the ferry routes being cut, even before the government relocated its terminals, as opposed to taking direct buses that didn’t force them to mode-switch on either end of a boat ride? Is the government really playing arbitrary favorites by subsidizing island ferries alone? Island residents have fewer (if any) alternatives, which probably makes subsidized transportation more necessary in their case.

    The narrow, almost riverine character of Victoria Harbour makes me think of the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York (which is really a similar channel itself). For decades — centuries, really — it was impossible to imagine this space without also picturing the many boats darting back and forth between the two boroughs. One of Walt Whitman’s most famous poems, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry“, even memorializes the sensation of this cross. But the gap has been bridged since the 1880s, and the city’s imagination has simply been captured by other conveyances, in other ways.

  • Other modes of transportation had 30 years to displace the Star Ferry, but it didn’t happen until the Central pier was relocated in 2006. I think the one-fifth drop in ridership that immediately followed the pier’s relocation is a testament to just how much it damaged the ferry’s viability.

    The advantage the old pier had was that it was easy walking distance to both Admiralty and Central. People from Kowloon side would take the bus to the bus to the TST pier and then the ferry across. It was quicker than the cross-harbour bus (which always gets stuck in traffic) and cheaper than the MTR. Now the new pier is 10 minutes further from Admiralty and 5 minutes further from Central, which makes it a lot less attractive in commuters’ eyes.

    The main difference between the East River and Victoria Harbour is that, in New York, there is a multitude of ways to cross the river between Manhattan and Brooklyn/Queens — two road tunnels, four bridges, something like 20 different subway lines. Hong Kong has just three cross-harbour road tunnels and two subway lines. That’s kind of crazy when you consider that the population of Hong Kong Island is roughly analogous to Manhattan (1.3 million vs. 1.6 million) and Kowloon/New Territories to Brooklyn/Queens (5.6 million vs. 4.9 million).

    Given the limited means to get across, along with the surcharge imposed on all cross-harbour forms of transport (eg, it costs as much to go one MTR stop across the harbour as it does to travel for 10 stations through Kowloon) the harbour still represents a big physical and psychological barrier between Hong Kong and Kowloon sides.

  • YTSL says:

    I loved the location of the old Star Ferry near City Hall and Statue Square, etc. Getting into Central from the Star Ferry then, one felt like one immediately was in the thick of things — and it was very convenient for Hong Kong International Film Festival goers who were running from a screenings at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre to one at City Hall (or vice versa).

    The new Central Star Ferry pier may be near the ferry piers to the outer islands, etc. But it feels like a slog to get there from even the closest MTR station (Hong Kong station — rather Central station like was previously the case).