The Real Star of Hong Kong Harbor Is the Ferry

Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

It is a ritual that begins in the dark each day at 4 a.m., as it has every morning for as long as anyone can remember.

As a soft gray light begins to reveal the darkened neon signs atop the tall white concrete buildings of the crowded skyline, a new day in Hong Kong is heralded by the movement of a few slow, noisy junks, the sound of these sea gypsies echoing over the bay.

Their aging diesel engines belch loudly as their even older wooden hulls push across the still calm waters of Hong Kong Harbor.

Some are towing barges filled with metal containers or fuel oil, and others, empty and in search of their daily cargo loads, move faster, churning up large wakes behind them.

But the dark serenity is also broken by an old Hong Kong tradition, the familiar sight of the 12 green-and-white boats of the Star Ferry as they begin their daily runs between Hong Kong and Kowloon. Barely an hour before the dawn comes slowly over the harbor, you can see them start to move, identified only by single white lights at the top of their radio masts.

Flying the blue-and-white Star Ferry flag from their metal light poles, the double-ended ferries suddenly appear in the early gray dawn and move across the harbor.

Necessary Service

The movement of the ferries is the unofficial signal that an official day has begun in Hong Kong. But it is more than a ritual exercise--the ferries provide a necessary service for thousands of people a day.

The boats feature two classes of service. First-class passengers sit upstairs, enclosed by a few dozen glass windows that wrap around each boat.

The fare: 70 Hong Kong cents, roughly 9.5 cents U.S. People like to boast that the Star Ferry offers the cheapest first-class fare in the world.

Savvy residents always seem to choose the lower deck, open-air seats of second-class (the fare is 50 Hong Kong cents). There they can be willingly confronted with a steady breeze and a never-ending parade of fast-moving harbor life that does nothing less than assault your senses.

The dark creosoted wood posts of the ferry buildings, shredded and splintered from thousands of tough encounters with the boats, moan as each ferry slides in.

Rush of Passengers

The main two-inch-thick hemp rope is barely thrown and taut when a loud bell sounds, the upper and lower gangways are dropped and the rush of passengers from the boats begins.

During peak traffic hours as many as eight boats move between Hong Kong and Kowloon at any one time.

It takes only six minutes to travel the less than one nautical mile across the harbor, and the back-and-forth movement of these legendary boats provides the constant rhythm of the harbor, a rhythm that doesn't stop until the ferries do, near midnight.

The same cautionary signs are behind the wheelhouse on each boat: "beware of pickpockets," they warn, or "do not spit," but no one seems to heed them.

For most of the passengers the ride across the harbor on one of the Star boats is one of the more pleasant daily necessities in Hong Kong.

Colorful Crowds

Still, part of the Star Ferry ritual is that no trip is worth it without a crowd. People push onto the boats on the Kowloon side and repeat the process on the Hong Kong side.

Tourists clutch their latest purchases from Nathan Road. Businessmen attempt to speed-read their copies of the South China Morning Post, but their attention is soon directed to the display all around them: ships of every pedigree and size--tankers, freighters, small oilers, navy ships, small, overcrowded sampans--all attempting to negotiate the water in front of them.

And on the ferries the ventilation doors and hatches are kept open, providing a direct view into the sparkling clean engine rooms.

On some late afternoons, with the sun providing the appropriate backlighting, the 39-ton ferries seem to control the water, zigzagging their way across. The boats artfully dodge the frenetic harbor traffic, each vessel seemingly headed in a different direction, producing a constantly changing kaleidoscope, a sort of nautical dance tribute to the mercantile madness that is Hong Kong.

Their wakes crisscross, the small resulting waves quarreling with each other to form a literal watercolor of activity. It is an image that serves to preserve many of the myths and most of the colorful history of this British colony.

Far From Merseyside

From his second-floor office in Kowloon overlooking the harbor, John Carey watches over his fleet. "The spiritual atmosphere is quite good here," he says. "You couldn't ask for a more dynamic place."

Carey is a newcomer to Hong Kong. For 13 years he had been running the bus company in Merseyside, England. His recent move to Hong Kong has been a most agreeable one. "Of the two, there is no comparison," he says, motioning to his visitor. "Just look out the window."

The boats are extremely economical. The steel hulls have all been built locally. With their large diesel engines they can run constantly for four hours without a break at a cost of only 300 Hong Kong dollars in fuel (about $40 U.S.).

The ferries move at a strong 12 knots, but it seems faster because they sit so low in the water. Two huge black iron anchors rest on both ends of each hull, but they are more ceremonial than anything else. "In the history of the ferry," Carey says, "none of the boats has ever anchored."

That history dates back to 1868 when a wealthy Indian immigrant, Dorabjee Nowrojee, bought a launch to ferry himself and his friends between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

A Galaxy of Names

What started as an unscheduled service for a few friends soon became so popular that Nowrojee bought a second launch, and a ferry service began. It was Nowrojee who started the tradition of naming the ships after stars in our galaxy.

One year later an Englishman named Grant Smith returned to the colony from a trip to London with a new steam engine and installed it in a boat.

By 1898 several boats were in service, competing with the hundreds of sampans in the congested harbor. That was the year that Nowrojee sold the ferry's assets to its present owner, Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf (now called Hong Kong Tramways Ltd.), and the Star Ferry company began.

First to be launched was the Morning Star. In 1900 two new ships, the Northern Star and the Southern Star, were added.

A year later the ferry service was so popular that the fleet numbered five ships, including the Polar Star and the Guiding Star. Fares were 15 cents for a first-class seat. A space on the lower deck sold for a penny.

The fleet survived a devastating typhoon in 1906, and again in 1908.

Second-Class Seats

After World War I, passenger service increased dramatically and larger ships were added. A second-class fare then included a seat, and ships were licensed to carry 555 persons.

The first diesel boats were launched in 1933.

By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the ferry company had attempted to disperse the fleet to avoid capture. The Electric Star and Northern Star were sunk at the Hong Kong Ice House ferry pier. The Japanese salvaged the ships and commandeered the rest of the fleet, using some of them on the rough run up the South China Sea to Canton. The Golden Star was chased by the Americans, who bombed it from the air, sinking the ship.

End of the War

The end of the war found the Star Ferry fleet in poor shape, and a rebuilding program was begun; it still continues.

Part of the history of the Star Ferry is an excellent safety record. The only serious accident occurred in 1937, when one Star struck another midships. No one was injured.

Another part of the ferry's history is that the design of the double-ended ships remains almost exactly the way it was at the turn of the century.

Generations on Board

Finally, perhaps the most important and enduring aspect of the Star Ferry is the tradition of family service. It is not unusual to see grandfather, son and grandson serving on the same boat, each wearing the same, distinctive navy blue uniforms. Some family service records span four decades.

Mass Transit Railway

And while Hong Kong has had a mass transit railway since 1979 as well as a cross-harbor tunnel, the Star Ferry is in no danger of extinction. The boat service retains thousands of passengers who prefer fresh air to expediency.

"It's also the romance of it all," says Rudolf Greiner, general manager of the Regent Hotel in Hong Kong. "Watching the ferry from here," he says "is like admiring an ever-changing watercolor.

"Whenever I have to go to the Hong Kong side I always have a limousine at my disposal to take the tunnel," he says. "But whenever time permits, I have the driver take me only as far as the ferry terminal. Although the crossing is short," he says, "it is invigorating. It allows me to collect my thoughts."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World