Hong Kong is a city that is always struggling with its past and present. Buildings built in the 1950’s still line up along Mongkok and are obviously worn down, but merchants attempt to hide the decay with ground-level artsy facades and billboards. The famous Victoria Harbour, where Hong Kong get its name (â€œfragrant harbourâ€) is shrinking as demand for real estate result in land reclamation. And despite the presence of the MTR system and road tunnels, one historical means of transportation is still plying its route all-year round: The Star Ferry. For much of the former British colony’s modern history, the Star Ferry has transported commuters across the harbor, providing a scenic and affordable trip between Kowloon and Central.
The history of the Star Ferry reflects that of Hong Kong itself: prior to the establishment of the Star Ferry Company, Ltd., people crossed Victoria Harbour via sampans. That all changed when an Englishman named Grant Smith brought a twin-screwed wooden-hulled steamboat to Hong Kong in 1870 for the purpose of ferrying passengers. Later on in 1888, a Parsee merchant named Dorabjee Nowrojee bought Smith’s boat and two others to found the Kowloon Ferry Company. In the following decades, the Ferry Company expanded its fleet, switched to diesel-electric models, and changed titles to its present-day name. Until 1972, it was the main means of transportation between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon side.
The fleet currently operates twelve diesel-electric ferries along four routes, carrying 70,000 passengers a day, 26 million a year. All of the ferries are affixed with the name â€œStarâ€, such as Morning Star and Silver Star. Even though there are now other ways to cross the harbour, the Star Ferry is a lasting legacy that celebrates the cultural heritage of the island.
After reading about the Star Ferry in a travel-oriented short story decades ago, I always imagined the ferry to be the size of an ocean liner, the distance it travels taking up a better part of the day. Upon passing by the harbour, I mistook the large white island cruise ships to be the ferry itself. This was actually a custom-designed ship owned by the Star Ferry Company which is meant for touring Victoria Harbor.
I never got to see the actual ferries until I bought a ticket and was awaiting the next transport to arrive. The ticket price starts at HKD 1.70, and passengers may pay through tokens or the universal Octopus Card system. The Tsim Sha Tsui terminal itself has a mini-museum which showcases the history of the Star Ferry. Glass-encased exhibits display miniatures of the various models of ships which comprised the fleet throughout the century. The current ferries are green and white, steel-and-wooden vessels, powered by diesel and able to carry 100 passengers at a time.
The best time to board the Star Ferry is definitely sunset, when the towering skyscrapers of Hong Kong glisten under the orange sky. Ships and boats dot the harbour, and the water itself is a bit choppy. All this brings out the imagery we conjure up about Hong Kong, a place where European grandeur meets Oriental elegance. The 10-minute trip is enough to immerse oneself in a literal rite-of-passage that has been ongoing for more than a hundred years.
If you ever visit Hong Kong, don’t delay in taking a ride onboard this sea-bound legacy. Land reclamation continues to shrink the distance between the harbour, and rising diesel prices and declining passenger numbers are forcing The Star Ferry Company, Ltd. to petition for a ticket price increase from the Hong Kong authority. All these threaten the existence of the Ferry as we know it, and it might not be too long before the entire ferry service can only be found in the museum it houses in its terminal.