Saturday, October 15, 2005

Still Hong Kong's Star Attraction

The gangplank falls with a resounding clank, and a remarkable cross-section of Hong Kong people heaves itself from the benches and surges across the quay. In the throng might be a nattily dressed Chinese businessman hurrying to a lunch meeting or a pair of Filipina maids twittering among themselves.

Or, there may be an Australian tourist, in a T-shirt and shorts, camera slung around his neck leaning over the railing to get one last shot of the famous skyline. By nightfall, the crowd includes a sprinkling of men and women in evening clothes returning from a concert at the Cultural Center or a soiree at one of the luxury hotels.

Hong Kong now boasts its very own Disneyland, but for my money the best ride in town, the best ride anywhere, is still a short trip across Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry. And speaking of money, the fare at the equivalent of about 30 cents is certainly easy on the pocket book.

In a city where very few buildings last for more than a couple decades, if they are not torn down sooner to make way for ever more profitable edifices, it is comforting to know that the ferries have been making their daily crossings for more than 100 years -- 400 crossings a day, 150,000 in a year (give or take a few disruptions from typhoons and war), perhaps 12 million crossing since the Star Ferry Company was established in 1898.

Anyone who has ever rented the 1950s movie The World of Suzy Wong would find the ferry and its terminal still instantly recognizable nearly 50 years later. Actor William Holden meets Suzy while crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island on the ferry. That scene lasted about as long as it takes the ferry to cover the distance, which is about seven minutes.

Dorabjes Nowrojee, a Parsee from India, started the Star Ferry in 1898. For reasons now lost to history, he named all of his boats with the word “Star” as part of the title, and the word has been in the name of every vessel ever since. So plying the harbor are a Twinkling Star, a Meridian Star, a Northern Star, a Silver Star, a Golden Star, a Shining Star.

But there has never been a Red Star in this ex-British colony and famously capitalistic enclave, but who knows? Someday, in a burst of solidarity with mainland China, there may emerge a ferry with that name.

Nothing except war or an occasional typhoon has ever interrupted service. During the 1925 general strike, the Royal Navy took over the running of the ferry service, but the naval ratings had difficulty maneuvering the boats into the ferry slips without crashing.

During the Japanese invasion in 1941, the ferries operated under enemy fire until the last British and other colonial troops evacuated Kowloon. When the British returned in 1945, they found two ferries partially submerged at the Hong Kong side terminal and a third sunk half way up the Pearl River.

I’ve ridden the Star Ferry in fog so thick you have to wonder how the pilot manages to avoid smashing into somebody. But so long as he can see at least 100 meters, he plows slowly on, sounding the for horn every two minutes with an assistant peering into the mist from the bow. Under such circumstances the normal crossing can take half an hour or more, but the ferries still run.

Until 1972 the Star Ferry was the only scheduled way to cross the harbor. Anybody stranded on either side of the harbor after midnight had to find a hotel, crash with friends or hire a private sampan, known curiously as walla wallas. The hoisting of a typhoon warning signal used to produce a stampede of people crowding the terminals to get home before the rising winds and choppy seas forced suspension of service.

Now, of course, you can hire a taxi and cross by way of any of the three underground, cross-harbor highway tunnels or take the subway under the harbor. But if I have sufficient time, or have no particular place I want to go, or if I just want to while away a pleasant half hour, I always prefer to take the Star Ferry.

I never tire of watching the panorama of Hong Kong’s harbor unfold before me, the constant traffic of barges, cruise liners or the occasional visiting warship, all set against the backdrop of the most famous skyline in the world.

Generally, I prefer the upper deck – “first class,” – which is farther from the engines and less noisy. I take a seat up front where I can feel the breeze in my face. Up until the beginning of World War II, no European was actually allowed to mingle among the Chinese on the lower deck. Men were also required to wear a shirt with a collar and a necktie.

The ferry service is only a small cog in the enormous property combine known as Wharf Holdings and not exactly what might be called a profit center. The comparatively low fares make it hard to get a decent return. Nevertheless, fares can be a sensitive issue.

The worst social discord in Hong Kong’s history broke out in 1966 after the Star Ferry raised its rates by ten Hong Kong cents (little more than a penny). They are still known as the “Star Ferry Riots” – although historians say the fare rise merely masked deeper grievances.

The ferry franchise runs until 2008. After that the future is unclear since the government wants to rationalize inner harbor services and may re-tender them. Also impacting the ferry’s future are reclamation projects that are steadily narrowing the distance between Kowloon and Hong Kong.

Because of these uncertainties, Wharf has not made plans for new construction, even though the average age of the fleet is 30 years. General Manager Frankie Yick says the parent company “is committed to providing service so long as we don’t lose too much money.” In capitalist Hong Kong that is a rare concession.

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