The Star Ferry

I supposed it had to happen – but it came as quite a shock to read that the Star Ferry Pier in Central, together with the adjacent Queens Pier is to be demolished as a result of reclamation along the north shore of Hong Kong Island.  Both piers will be re-positioned further out into the harbour on newly reclaimed land

Why the nostalgia?   Well, it was my regular transport to work for most of the 9 years I worked in Tsim Sha Tsui and Queens Pier was the boarding point for many of the junk trips to Lamma.

(Looking north towards Tsim Sha Tsui, you can see the Star Ferry Pier on the left with Queens Pier on the right)

The Ferry has a unique place in Hong Kong’s history.   In 1966 a fare increase of 10 cents sparked the 1966 Hong Kong riots and, until the opening of the Cross Harbour Tunnel in 1972, the Star Ferry was the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

The Star Ferry makes a “star turn” in the 1950s film The World of Suzie Wong.  In the beginning of the film, Robert Lomax (played by William Holden debarks from the USS President Harrison (an old American President Line transpacific passenger vessel) and takes the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, and on the ferry meets Suzie Wong (played by Nancy Kwan who scorns his attentions as unwanted.

The ferry itself is completely recognizable, and the layout of the pier where William Holden debarks in Kowloon is familiar to the resident or denizen of Tsim Sha Tsui, but missing are the giant shopping malls of today.

From Wikipedia (with my edits..):

The Star Ferry is a passenger ferry service operator and its’ principal routes carry passengers across Victoria Harbour between Hong Kong island and Kowloon.   The company has been operating since the late 1880s. It was founded by Parsee Dorabjee Nowrojee as the Kowloon Ferry Company in 1888 and renamed it to Star Ferry in 1898. The name was inspired by his love of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”, whose first line was Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me!

The fleet of twelve ferries operates four routes across the harbour, carrying over 70,000 passengers a day, or 26 million a year. Even though there are now other ways to cross the harbour, by MTR (subway) and road tunnels, the Star Ferry continues to provide an efficient, popular and inexpensive mode of crossing the harbour. The company’s main route runs between the main Central District and Tsim Sha Tsui which is what most people mean by “the Star Ferry” in common parlance. This route is also popular with tourists, and has become one of the icons of Hong Kong heritage in the eyes of tourists. From the ferry, one can take in the famous view of the harbour and the Hong Kong skyline.

(Hong Kong from Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, with the Star Ferry Pier in the Foreground)

Architects and conservationists state that the old piers have important architectural and cultural value to Hong Kong. For the past 50 years, it has witnessed dramatic changes and it plays an important part in their collective memory. Architecturally, the ferry pier is one of the last examples of a Streamline Modern public building in Hong Kong, along with the Central market and Wan Chai market also facing demolition.

Earlier, the Star Ferry Company carried out a technical feasibility study to see whether it could relocate the existing clock mechanism from the old pier. The clock is a precious antique mechanical clock. It was manufactured by the same UK company that provided the mechanical signature to Big Ben of London. However, an expert and specialist clock supplier advised against relocation as there was no guarantee the clock and chimes would continue to work after relocation, due to their age and obsolete components.

Ongoing maintenance of the ageing clock mechanism has also become difficult. Therefore, the company decided to replace the existing clock with a new set of five bells that sound similar to those of the old one.

(Meridian Star (午星號) heading for Central in the late afternoon sun)

Despite the Government’s decision to relocate the ferry pier, there are local community efforts to save the Star Ferry Pier and the Clock Tower. Some members of the public call for the complete preservation of the structures. The Hong Kong Institute of Architects vice-president Mr. Vincent Ng Wing-shun, for example, warned that the government was destroying Hong Kong’s heritage. “If the government moved a [proposed six-lane] road a little bit to the left or right, then we could save the pier,” he said.

Part of the new pier for the Star Ferry will be an existing pier built at the time of the reclamation on which the Hong Kong Station of the Airport Express MTR line and the recently completed IFC (International Finance Centre) are built (i.e. no.7 of the outlying islands ferry piers).

This pier is being rebuilt and expanded eastwards to resemble a replica of the Star Ferry Pier in the early 20th century, rather than the existing, soon-to-be-demolished pier.

The Government accepted a proposal from Star Ferry to adopt a historical heritage design approach. It used the way the piers looked in 1912 as the blueprint for constructing the new piers and clock tower.

Construction began in mid-2003. As these structures occupy a prime waterfront site, the Government took the opportunity to try to develop the piers into a new landmark for public “enjoyment”.

Unfortunately, the Government’s attempt of trying to create a “historic” building has backfired with heavy criticism from the public of the design. This mock Edwardian design has been criticised as “a set from a film studio, and has been described as “dressing up a modern person in historical costume.”

The choice of modern materials and the oversized proportions of the new design contrast with its mock-edwardian style, resulting in a “theme park” appearance. The government does not understand that they cannot recreate history and sense of place by mimicking old styles. The new pier will not stand the test of time as they are fundamentally dishonest, an imitation of the past without capturing the spirit of the past or present.

After the existing clock tower is demolished, the five old bells will be put on display in the new tower’s hall and will be an ironic and sad reminder of its lost past.

By relocating the new piers 300m away, the Star Ferry could lose up to 30 percent of passengers due to its inconvenient location as passengers opt for alternative transport. There is a risk that in the long term, the Star Ferry will slowly be reduced to being just a tourist attraction.

The new terminal at Central Piers 7 and 8 will come into operation in November and tickets for the last ride are now all sold out – even at HK$88 a pop.


Sir John Cowperthwaite 1915-2006

Sir John Cowperthwaite, who died on January 21 aged 90, was Financial Secretary of Hong Kong throughout the 1960s; his extreme laissez-faire economic policies created conditions for very rapid growth, laying the foundations of the colony’s prosperity as an international business centre.

The present administration in the UK could learn much from this approach, creating a vibrant and successful economy, the foundations of which survive to this day.

Cowperthwaite was a classical free-trader in the tradition which stretched from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill and Gladstone, rather than a modern monetarist. He was also a seasoned colonial administrator, with a strong streak of common sense. But his achievement in Hong Kong was hailed by Milton Friedman and other free-market economists as a shining example of the potency of laissez-faire when carried through to its logical conclusions in almost every aspect of government. The Right-wing American commentator PJ O’Rourke called Cowperthwaite “a master of simplicities”.

Cowperthwaite himself called his approach “positive non-intervention”. Personal taxes were kept at a maximum of 15 per cent; government borrowing was wholly unacceptable; there were no tariffs or subsidies. Red tape was so reduced that a new company could be registered with a one-page form.

Cowperthwaite believed that government should concern itself with only minimal intervention on behalf of the most needy, and should not interfere in business. In his first budget speech he said: “In the long run, the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralised decisions of a government, and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster.”

From 1961 to 1971 Cowperthwaite exercised almost complete control of the colony’s finances under successive governors, Sir Robert Black and Sir David Trench, who were sympathetic to his philosophy and content to give him his head. Among his peers in the Hong Kong government, it was said that only Claude Burgess, the colonial secretary, could keep him in line. “His brilliance and argumentation prevailed, and he thus made policy by ruling on all items of expenditure,” said one colleague. But Cowperthwaite summed up his part in the colony’s success over the decade with some modesty: “I did very little. All I did was to try to prevent some of the things that might undo it.”

The measure of that success was a 50 per cent rise in real wages, and a two-thirds fall in the number of households in acute poverty. Exports rose by 14 per cent a year, as Hong Kong evolved from a trading post to a major regional hub and manufacturing base.

Cowperthwaite’s style was polished and amusing, but his intellect was razor sharp. Once his mind was made up on an issue, he was not to be shifted. His refusal to compromise was such that it was often said he would not have lasted five minutes in any equivalent post in the Home Civil Service. Denis Healey, as Labour’s Defence Minister, tried several times to persuade him that Hong Kong taxpayers should contribute more towards the British military presence in the colony. “I always retired hurt from my encounters with the redoubtable Financial Secretary,” he recalled.

Another aspect of Cowperthwaite’s modus operandi was a habit of holding his cards very close to his chest. When Milton Friedman asked him, in 1963, to explain the mechanism which kept the Hong Kong dollar pegged to the pound, Cowperthwaite remarked that even the management of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (through which the peg was operated) did not understand it – “Better they shouldn’t. They would mess it up.” As for the paucity of economic statistics for the colony, Cowperthwaite explained that he resisted requests to provide any, lest they be used as ammunition by those who wanted more government intervention.

The only real constraint on him was the requirement that he should hold the colony’s credit balances in sterling. The arrangement was to cost Hong Kong dear when the chronic weakness of the British economy – shaped, it might be said, by interventionist, high-tax policies diametrically opposite to his own – forced the devaluation of the pound in 1967, resulting in a loss of some £30 million to Hong Kong’s reserves.

The unfettered Hong Kong economy took that blow in its stride, however, just as it had recovered from a crisis of confidence in local banks in 1965 and withstood the destabilising impact of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In its annual report for 1971, the year of Cowperthwaite’s retirement, the government was able to boast that Hong Kong had become a “stable and increasingly affluent society comparable with the developed world in nearly every respect”.

If there were critics who doubted that claim, few were to be found within Hong Kong itself, where hundreds of thousands of industrious Chinese refugees were grateful for the opportunities such an open economy offered. Seen from the perspective of the British welfare state, however, Hong Kong’s social provision looked harshly inadequate. There were those who argued that the colony’s prosperity was driven by its inhabitants’ undiluted dedication to money-making, rather than by its style of government, and that a little more expenditure on education and health might have generated an ever faster growth rate.

Others pointed out that even the modest sums Cowperthwaite did allocate to these areas were regularly underspent by a wide margin: in 1970-71, for example, health services – budgeted at little more than a pound per head of population – undershot by more than a quarter.

But statistics for mortality and disease showed steady improvement, and, despite its parsimony, the government maintained an ambitious refugee rehousing programme. Cowperthwaite himself had a Gladstonian sense of obligation towards the least fortunate: he rejected the notion of tax relief on mortgage interest because it would have benefited the better-off and might have prejudiced “our maximum housing effort at the lower end of the scale”.

To the extent that he left stark gaps in Hong Kong’s social provision, the balance was partially rectified during the interventionist governorship of Sir Murray (later Lord) MacLehose in the 1970s. But Cowperthwaite’s successors in the Financial Secretary’s office adhered to his principles, funding increased public expenditure through land sales rather than from tax or borrowing.

John James Cowperthwaite was born on April 25 1915 and educated at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. He went on to study Economics at St Andrews University and Christ’s College, Cambridge, before joining the Colonial Administrative service in Hong Kong in 1941. During the Japanese occupation he was seconded to Sierra Leone.

Returning to Hong Kong in 1945, he was asked to find ways in which the government could boost post-war economic revival; but he found the economy recovering swiftly without intervention, and took the lesson to heart.

He was appointed OBE in 1960, CMG in 1964 and knighted in 1968.

After leaving the government, Cowperthwaite was international adviser to Jardine Fleming, the Hong Kong-based investment bank, until 1981. He retired to St Andrews, where he was a member of the Royal & Ancient.

He married, in 1941, Sheila Thomson; their son, the architect Hamish Cowperthwaite, predeceased him.

From The Daily Telegraph

Crime pays: For II’s in HK

A lovely story in the SCMP recently concerned a Vietnamese man who illegally entered Hong Kong carrying ammunition – and who threatened to commit robberies if he failed to find a job. He was jailed for 31 months. Duh!

Hell of a way to get a ‘permit to remain’…. but effective.

Free food and accomodation. Not bad.

The 36-year-old was sentenced in the District Court to 15 months’ jail for illegally remaining in Hong Kong, and an additional 16 months’ jail for possessing ammunition without a licence.

He was arrested at Man Kam To control point in September after he was discovered hiding in a lorry. He failed to provide proof of identity; some ammunition was also found on him.

The man had told police he would commit robberies if he could not find a job in the territory. He also said being sent to jail would help him kick his drug habit.

Free drug rehabilitation. Pretty good.

In recent years, some Vietnamese men have entered Hong Kong illegally with ammunition in order to be deliberately sent to jail. Some have said that this was so they could earn money while in prison.

And and Income! Result: crime pays.

And a criminal illegal immigrant does even better.

What a funny world we live in.