On the Waterfront: Central Ferry Piers, Cheung Chau Praya

Ferry piers

This is the last in a series of three posts about Hong Kong’s waterfront public spaces. Read the first one here and the second here.

The promenade that runs for 850 metres along the Central ferry piers is one of the best public spaces in Hong Kong. I suspect this partly by accident. In the late 1990s, land reclamation for the airport railway and Tung Chung MTR line pushed the Central waterfront more than 300 metres outwards, so the six ferry piers that serve Hong Kong’s outlying islands were relocated. In 2006, they were joined by two new Star Ferry piers and two public piers used by pleasure craft and other small boats. A promenade was created to link each of the piers, which are in turn linked to the rest of Central by a footbridge network.

At first glance, the promenade is pretty ordinary; it makes extensive use of the same chintzy pink tiles that are found everywhere in Hong Kong. (I really, really wish the government would invest in some high-quality paving stones. With nearly HK$600 billion in reserves, it could surely afford some nice granite, no?) But there are several small touches that make the space more functional and more comfortable than other government-designed parks and plazas.

First is the provision of two parallel pathways. One runs along the water and is lined by benches, ledges and steps where people sit while they are waiting for their ferry. The second is covered and well-lit — a kind of expressway for people rushing to catch their ferries. The two are separated by steps and planters with curvy edges that create some interesting nooks in which to sit. The planters are filled with shrubs and fast-growing banyan trees that provide plenty of shade. The multiple levels and passages give the promenade a nuanced feel that isn’t found in many other public spaces in Hong Kong.

Those are the bones of the space; they’re ugly but they work well. The flesh and blood comes from the constant flow of ferry passengers, who are joined by joggers, fishermen, cyclists and truant schoolchildren. Most of the piers contain independently-owned shops selling snacks and drinks. (There’s even a bar stall selling craft beer, spirits and wine, which brings in people like myself who don’t need to use the ferries.) In the evening, there are always plenty of people sitting around, drinking beer, snacking and fishing. There are lots of couples, too — this is the only place in otherwise reserved Hong Kong where I always see public displays of affection.

The feeling disappears when you reach the Central Star Ferry pier, which is a hulking faux-historical structure at the east side of the promenade. It was built with cheap materials and a kind of dull fussiness that is far too common in Hong Kong public architecture. There is no shortage of chairs and benches here, but people don’t seem to hang out there the way they do further down the piers.

Incoming ferry

Fishing

Ferry

To Mui Wo

Star Ferry Pier

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The Beer Bay - Hong Kong

Photo by Cedric Sam

“Praya” is one of a handful of English colonial words that are rarely heard in the spoken language but are still common in Hong Kong signage and place names. (Others include “shroff,” “nullah” and “godown,” which refer to a payment kiosk, drainage canal and warehouse, respectively.) Most of the words have Indian or Malay origins, but praya comes from the Portuguese word for “beach.” In Hong Kong, it refers to a waterfront promenade or roadway.

The Cheung Chau Praya runs for just over a kilometre along the west side of this small island, which is home to around 30,000 people. On one side, there are three- and four-storey buildings with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and apartments above. On the other is Cheung Chau’s typhoon shelter, where dozens of fishing boats are moored. Many of the focal points of Cheung Chau life can be found along the Praya: an elaborate Tin Hau temple, the ferry pier that serves as the island’s lifeline to the rest of Hong Kong, a large wet market built in the 1980s. There are also dozens of outdoor restaurants and cafés, thousands of bicycles parked beneath banyan trees and, at night, hawkers that sell sushi, tong shui dessert soup, cheung fun rice noodles and other snacks. Pedestrians share the promenade with the island’s many cyclists, mostly without conflict.

It’s what much of Hong Kong’s waterfront was like before it was obliterated by massive infrastructure projects in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. You can still get the feeling at places like the Public Cargo Working Area in Shek Tong Tsui, which comes alive at night when people from the neighbourhood go there to fish, play music, ride bikes and enjoy the sea breeze. The Central ferry piers has a bit of the same atmosphere, too, thanks to the abundance of small retail spaces and a design that doesn’t dictate how people should use the space. It’s a question of scale, mixity of use and a simple but flexible design. It might be a bit too much to ask for such informality on the rest of the waterfront, but it’s what Hong Kong does best.

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Night market

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday November 19 2011at 12:11 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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