Our World The charming ferries of Hong Kong

The first thing I notice are the buckets. They’re the old-fashioned metal type, a little battered but painted vivid red, the name of the boat we’re aboard printed in English and Chinese characters on the side.

They’re almost an anachronism, these metal buckets, in our plastic-wrapped age. But they seem right at home here aboard Night Star, one of the handful of vessels that make up Hong Kong’s famed Star Ferries fleet.

More than most cities, Hong Kong is filled with excellent transportation options, from the historic narrow-gauge trams — affectionately known as “ding dings” — and the boxy taxis to the MTR underground railway, the venerable funicular railway that transports tourists up Victoria Peak, even the famous covered outdoor escalators of Hong Kong Island. But the ferries pre-date — and out-charm — them all.

Hong Kong’s first ferries began running in the 1870s, but the precursor to the current service was founded in the 1880s as the Kowloon Ferry Company. 

Before too long, the fleet had expanded to four vessels — called Morning Star, Evening Star, Rising Star and Guiding Star — and the company was renamed the Star Ferry Company, apparently inspired by a line in a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Since then, the ferries have become a mainstay of harbour life. Their advent played a crucial part in the development of Kowloon — these days Hong Kong’s most populous area. 

They’d  later have a role in historical events including World War II, when two were commandeered by the occupying Japanese forces and sunk during battles with the Americans, and the city’s 1966 riots, which were sparked by an increase in ferry fares.

Having been in service since the early 1960s, Night Star is about average, age wise, among the Star Ferries. And though it’s immaculately kept, everything — from the wooden decks worn by decades of foot traffic to the crews’ decidedly retro sailor-suit uniforms — hints at its vintage. 

Indeed, the ferries’ appearance is said to have remained relatively unchanged for decades even as the city has grown into a  metropolis around them. Their classic green-and-white colour scheme — sometimes masked by promotional livery — and their distinctive shape make them instantly recognisable, while their clever double-ended design means they can be piloted from either end as they shuttle back and forth across the harbour. (Similarly, the seat backs swing to and fro according to the direction of travel.)

Then there’s the enduring pleasure of leaning against the railing on the 10-minute crossing from Kowloon, a gentle breeze in your face as you approach the glass skyscrapers and high-rise apartments on the opposite shore. It’s a calm moment in a city known for its crowds — a welcome respite whose appeal, you’d expect, is evergreen. 

These days, though, there’s a perception that the Star Ferries are perhaps more for tourists than locals. Last year, they reported carrying 19.3 million passengers in 2017 — more than 50,000 people a day — but their routes have shrunk in number from four to two in  the past decade, and options such as the MTR are undeniably more efficient. Earlier last year, the company announced plans for modest modernisations, introducing wi-fi at the piers and retrofitting more environmentally friendly engines among them. 

For now, though, things aboard Night Star remain much as they’ve always been. As we pull into the pier at Central, passengers begin to gather up children and possessions. And while the captain manoeuvres the ferry into position, a crew member takes his place by the railing. A heavy rope is thrown ashore and deftly caught with a long, hooked pole. This is the way it’s been done, so it’s said, since the very beginning.

(Top image: Gemma Nisbet)

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