Header image courtesy of The University of Hong Kong Libraries
In the middle of Victoria Harbour sits a great-great-grandfather who stubbornly sticks to wearing green and white. At over 130 years old, he’s the eldest in his family of public transportation modes and has fondly watched over Hong Kong’s shorelines for more a century. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, he goes to work at the same place, doing the same thing—and you’ve most likely visited him at work before.
His name is Star Ferry, and his long life in public service unravels like an illustrious spiderweb of fame, fortune, and a fair share of controversy. From humble beginnings to an internationally recognised figure, read on for the tale behind this charmingly antiquated Hong Kong icon.
Parsee immigrant Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala had a need to transport his bread. He originally acquired a steamboat just to ferry his baked goods—along with himself and his fellow co-workers—between Kowloon and Central. But Mithaiwala soon discovered a far more lucrative opportunity in transporting passengers and established the Kowloon Ferry Company in 1888.
Within a decade, the demand for service quickly expanded the quaint ferry business into a small fleet of four vessels: the Morning Star, Evening Star, Rising Star, and the Guiding Star. What’s with all the stars, you say? Turns out the baker-turned-CEO was a fan of Alfred Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar, of which the first stanza reads:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea, (…)
Mithaiwala‘s ferrying service proved groundbreaking: Not only was the hour-long ride considered an express back then, but cross-harbour commuters can now build their days around a regular schedule instead of relying on the more irregular and scattered sampans from before. This ultimately helped develop the then-sparsely populated Kowloon as the booming city it is today.
Upon his retirement in 1898, Mithaiwala sold the company to British businessman Sir Catchick Paul Chater of The Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company. The Kowloon Ferry Company was then renamed as the Star Ferry Company after the steamboats’ names, and ownership of the Star Ferry has not changed hands since.
New ferries were commissioned, with a design that designated the top deck and its separate seats as first-class seating. Passengers on this level were expected to abide by a dress code; for example, men had to wear a collar and tie. On the contrary, passengers on the third-class lower deck had to sit on backless benches or stand, and may even be subjected to a splash in the face when the seas were rough.
Third-class commuters weren’t the only ones who had it rough. No matter how tranquil the green-and-white trademark may seem to bob along the harbour, Star Ferry weathered through some rough patches over the past century. In 1906, before the government developed a warning system for typhoons, a few Star Ferries were too slow to seek shelter when a typhoon hit. The vessels were severely battered, and a pier was completely destroyed.
A few years later in 1912, the Star Ferry Company announced that they would only accept Hong Kong currency and reject Canton currency—even though both were legal tenders at the time—a move that caused controversy. The public grew even more outraged in 1966 when the Ferry revealed its plans for a 50 percent fare hike. A student went on a hunger strike at the Central pier to protest the proposal; when he was arrested on charges for obstruction of passageway, citizens spilt into the streets to protest, which escalated into the infamous Hong Kong riots of 1966.
The Star did not always shine, and perhaps its darkest days were during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong when Imperial Japanese troops commandeered the Ferries to transport prisoners of war. Two ferries were even bombed and sunk into the harbour in a skirmish against the Americans, but they were later recovered as soon as the Second World War ended.
Public outcry was raised again when the government decided to tear down the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier and its clock tower at Central for more land reclamation. Conservationists and locals alike were upset at the disregard for Hong Kong heritage; the Pier had been there since 1957 servicing thousands of commuters every day! In spite of citizens’ collective memory of the place, the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier and nearby piers were demolished and replaced by the Central Ferry Piers of today.
Though its original counterpart on the opposite shore is no more, the familiar Star Ferry Pier at Tsim Sha Tsui continues to operate to this day. Passengers can choose to ride to either Central or Wan Chai for just a few dollars, pay more to go on sightseeing tours, or even rent out a whole ferry.
Other than that, the Star Ferry has managed to preserve most of its historical flair. The design of the ferries has largely stayed the same, from the colour scheme and the adjustable swing seats to the double-ended design that allows the ferry to switch directions in a jiffy. The ships are also moored in the same manner as the days of yore by a team of billhook-wielding sailors who would brave any weather to catch ferry ropes thrown their way.
As other modes of public transportation in the city become more developed and favoured by the public, the Star Ferry has become more of a tourist attraction than a regular commute. Nonetheless, its long history and antiquated charm make it a significant piece of Hong Kong heritage. Hong Kong’s skyline and the Victoria Harbour would truly be incomplete without its Star.