Saturday evening after running an errand in Tsimshatsui, I decide on the spur of the moment to take the Star Ferry back to Central instead of the MTR. I haven’t crossed the harbor on the tin sing, the Star Ferry, since the old ferry pier on the Central side was shut down in mid-November.
At around 8pm on a crisp, clear night, the promenade in front of the Tsimshatsui ferry pier is alive with people: tourists posing, children playing, fishermen fishing, lovers smooching. The life of a city playing out against one of the most stunning backdrops in the world.
Yeah, I know, this is the picture that every Hong Kong tourist takes. But who can resist? I took it from the same spot where so many Hong Kong visitors snap this scene, standing by the windows in the waiting area of the Star Ferry pier building on the Tsimshatsui side.
The Star Ferry is, hands down, Hong Kong’s most famous tourist attraction. National Geographic Traveler, voted it one of the “100 Travel Experiences of a Lifetime” in one of their recent issues. It’s also, I’m pretty sure, one of those “1000 Things To Do Before You Die”. It’s an icon.
As a first time tourist in Hong Kong, I developed a crush on the ferry, like everybody does. The pleasure of crossing Victoria Harbor on those vintage old green and white boats didn’t fade over time as I settled into being a Hong Konger. Unlike so many of the world’s tourist experiences, the Star Ferry has legs.
Ride it ten times or a thousand, when it pulls away from the dock, you can feel a weight lift from your chest. You’ve escaped from Hong Kong, your boss, your heartbreak. For about seven minutes, it’s just you and the ocean, silvery skyscrapers and big mountains. And, on those (increasingly rare) clear days, a jade-green sea, a blue sky.
There is a simple reason why the Star Ferry has been an international tourist attraction for decades: It is not for tourists. It is serious public transport. For more than 100 years, the Star (and its predecessors) have been ferrying Hong Kongers of all stripes, from businessmen to laborers, back and forth between Kowloon and downtown Hong Kong island. Even after the subway train was built beneath the harbor, the ferry stayed afloat. It is cheaper than the MTR–only about 10 cents USD if you ride the lower deck–and often faster, since it lets you off, at both ends, in a more convenient location of the city.
Well, it used to. Last November, the Hong Kong government shuttered the 49 year old Star Ferry terminal in Central, part of their master plan to build a freeway and a long horizontal shopping mall along that side of the waterfront.
Now there’s a brand new Star Ferry Pier on the Hong Kong island side, in a different location to the west of the original, about 800 meters walk from the nearest convenient pedestrian link in–you guessed it, a shopping mall.
I’d stopped by to see the new building some weeks before, so I was prepared for this bargain-basement Disneyland. Tearing down the lovely old Star Ferry terminal was a really bad idea. But if the government was so sure this had to be, they could have paid tribute to the legacy of Hong Kong’s great transport hub and dared to construct an imaginative piece of contemporary architecture, something with style that might have brought a fresh perspective to the harbor and made civic spirits soar. Instead, they opted for a tacky looking faux-historical simulacrum, a “replacement” for the original that won’t fool anybody, tourists or locals:
Like I said, awful. As I boarded the ferry on the Tsimshatsui/Kowloon side, I was gearing up for the letdown of arrival. But what I wasn’t prepared for is how much more than a great old building the Star Ferry has lost since the move to the new terminal.
To start with, since the pier has moved to the west, the ferry now takes a different course, angled towards the IFC building. It used to take a straight shot into the most architectually thrilling part of Hong Kong’s skyline, where I.M. Pei’s Bank of China and Norman Foster’s HSBC building tower over the lone remaining vestige of old Hong Kong, the Legislative Council building. Now that classic view is off to the side, and you’re heading away from it.
Arrival on the Hong Kong side is also a letdown. At the old Central pier, you disembarked into a sidewalk-level area busy with taxis, vendors, mini-buses, the occasional rickshaw, and a perpetual Falun Gong demonstration. Now, at the new pier, you get off and there is….nothing but an 800 meter walk to civilization.
The big new building and clocktower are situated in-between the two long piers that stick out into the harbor, and they were completely deserted when I disembarked on a busy Friday night. No strollers, no fishermen, no smoochers. Going into the building requires a conscious decision to do so since it is not part of the pedestrian connection between the pier, the IFC mall and the streets.
Even stranger, the new Star Ferry building is set above the street level, on a raised knoll and a concrete platform. I imagine that’s probably so it can be connected with some yet-to-be-built raised walkway that feeds into the future shopping mall. But raising the building isolates the little concrete strip of waterfront access at ground level that’s sandwiched, like an afterthought, between the two piers at the front.
I walked off the ferry and down the pedestrian path towards IFC, feeling bad, like I’d been dumped, or betrayed by an old friend. And then, insult to injury, I spotted this little piece of government propaganda on the construction barrier to the left of the walkway:
Woot lik, the first two Chinese characters on the sign, are two very heavy-hitting characters indeed. Woot means life, and lik means strength, power. Together, the life-power combination translates as vitality, vibrancy. The old Central Star Ferry terminal had the power of life, because it was useful to people. The new one doesn’t have it, because it isn’t. As a speedy and convenient funnel for passengers and pedestrians, a vibrant entry to Hong Kong’s downtown, the design is a failure.
Woot lik, however, is not the point of the new Star Ferry Terminal. It’s there to be a facade, and it’s there for feel-good and face, to try to convince everyone–Hong Kong people, tourists, maybe even government officials themselves–that nothing, really, has been lost in the relentless juggernaut of property development.
But of course it has. You can’t step off the Star Ferry in Central now without being reminded that nothing, not heritage or community feeling, nor even the gutting of a beloved, world-famous and revenue-producing tourism icon, is more important than selling Hong Kong’s waterfront to the highest bidders.