Although I have never sailed on an ocean liner, I figure I’ve made the equivalent of several trans-Pacific voyages in the 40 years I’ve lived here just crossing Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry’s main route connecting Hong Kong’s central business district with Kowloon. When I’m not off on trips around China and southeast Asia buying handicrafts for our Amazing Grace airport stores here and in Singapore, the Star Ferry is how I get to and from work every day. I could be one of the ferry company’s best ever customers except for the fact that for the last seven years I haven’t paid a penny for my passage. More about that later.
The harbor is Hong Kong’s lifeblood. Until the opening of the first harbor tunnel in 1972 and later a subway and two more tunnels, the ferry service that started in 1880 and became the Star Ferry Company in 1898 was the most important link connecting Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula. Now 12 double-deck green and white ‘Star’ ferries — Evening Star, Morning Star, Night Star, Solar Star, Meridian Star, Silver Star, Shining Star, etc. — carry over 70,000 passengers a day on four cross-harbor routes — and what a pleasant alternative they are to the busy tunnel traffic and crowded subway trains.
For me and many others, that short journey of seven or eight minutes is more than just a boat ride — its an absolute delight. Leaving every six to twelve minutes depending on the time of day from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., there’s hardly any waiting time before boarding. A seat on the starboard (right) side from Hong Kong to Kowloon and port (left) side from Kowloon to Hong Kong usually offers a refreshing east to northeasterly breeze blowing across from the South China Sea. On most of the warmer days there’s the option of sitting in the air-conditioned section on the upper deck. When thick morning fog blankets the harbor, I am treated to a symphony of horns played by the ferry pilot and and those on nearby vessels. Before typhoons come too close and shut down service, their approach makes for choppy seas and turns going to work into a mild adventure. I confess to a schoolboy’s delight in seeing the few passengers not prescient in their choice of seats get soaked when the occasional wave comes crashing over the lower deck.
Those few minutes are just enough time to read The Standard, a free tabloid handed out in the morning near the ferry piers, and enjoy a cup of coffee that I take on board from Starbucks located near the upper deck turnstiles on the Hong Kong side. Coming from Kowloon there’s Uncle Ross Coffee tucked in next to the upper deck entrance. These daily sea voyages are truly the most relaxing times of my day, the best therapy in town as one writer has put it. This small measure of tranquility requires a little distance however from anyone in a suit with a cellphone, caffeinated traders exchanging notes, and exuberance of any kind whoever the perpetrators. Caution: choose your seat carefully.
On the evenings I work late, a seat on the 8 p.m. Star Ferry leaving Kowloon terminal guarantees one of the best views of the ‘World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show’, as described by Guiness World Records. This multimedia display of colored lights, laser beams and searchlights by over 40 buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor, known as ‘The Symphony of Lights’, creates what the Hong Kong Tourist Association calls a ‘stunning, unforgettable spectacle . . . a must-see event on any visit to Hong Kong’. Allowing for a little exaggeration by the HKTA, I’d still say its a pretty impressive show produced by one of the most stunning skylines in the world. I particularly like the way the white linear lights streak up and down the triangular sections of the Bank of China building in such unpredictable ways.
I guess what I like best about the Star Ferry fleet is the familiarity these ladies afford. Although a little grumpy at times, not surprising considering some are into their 50’s, I feel comfortable in their humble presence — unchallenged may be the better word. Change never threatens, there are seldom surprises. The buzzer sounds, you alight; the whistle blows, the ferry chugs forward; the bell rings, you disembark. Archimedes would be proud of the jury-rigged rope and pulley apparatus used to lower and raise the gangplank. The ritual of casting and catching the ropes remains the same. I feel in my bones the creaks and cracks of those thick hemp ropes as they’re wound around the mooring bitts. A new rope is a rare sight; watching a crew member sprawled on the deck with a hammer and cutter re-braiding broken strands of a rope that snapped is all at once a privileged look at an ancient craft and a lesson in economy.
A trip on the Star Ferry is not something you should take just because its cheap and yet it is, unbelievably so. Only U.S. 30 cents for adults, 18 cents for children on the upper deck (‘first class’ we call it) and 23 cents for adults and 17 cents for children on the lower deck if you don’t mind the press of humanity. Prices are slightly higher on weekends and public holidays and will go up another three to ten cents across the board January 1, 2010. Just imagine: a proposed increase of around two cents in 1966 triggered what are still known as the ‘Star Ferry Riots’ in which one person was killed and dozens injured although, in fact, there were deeper underlying causes for the disturbances. Citizens over 65 with a Hong Kong identification card or senior citizen card go free which is why I have paid nothing these last few years.
The National Geographic Traveler magazine listed the Star Ferry as one of the ‘Must-Do’s’ in its ‘Places of a Lifetime’ series featuring 50 cities. It was also number one in a poll conducted by The Society of American Travel Writers to determine the ‘Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides in the World’. It has been described as ‘the cheapest, multi-cultural multi-sensory cruise experience in the world’, ‘an icon of Hong Kong’s heritage’, ‘a piece of the fabric of Hong Kong life’ and ‘one of Hong Kong’s best-loved institutions’. William Holden playing the role of an aspiring artist in the 1960 film ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ met Suzie played by Nancy Kwan while crossing on the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong, a scene that lasts the time it takes to cover the distance. Surprisingly, the Kowloon terminal and pier area don’t look much different now than they did in the film nearly 50 years ago except for the Ocean Terminal, a stone’s throw away, where huge cruise liners and the occasional warship moor.
The harbor never sleeps, they say, and over the years I have photographed a wide variety of cruise liners, pleasure launches, barges, tugs, junks, freighters, etc. from the decks of the Star Ferry and my 14th floor office in Star House (appropriately named) overlooking the harbor. Someday I may hook up a web cam trained on the harbor so that everyone with a computer can tune in 7/24 to the panoramic view and endless variety of ships passing by. Its a lot cheaper than getting on an airplane to come here but then you’d miss the chance to shop at our stores.