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.


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