Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: Ferry Piers, Maritime Town Squares

When Wong Yee-man wants to while away an afternoon, he heads to the Central ferry piers, unreels a fishing line and waits for the wake churned up by the constant coming and going of ferries to deliver him some fish. 

“I make fish soup with what I catch,” the septuagenarian retiree says while standing next to Pier 4. A bucket of small silver yellowish-silver fish sits next to his feet. “I want to save money on food and relax at the same time. I go to different piers just to try each one of them. What you catch depends more on your bait than on your location. I’m using wet flour to catch nai4 maang6 (泥孟) fish.”

A man strums a guitar not far from Wong as people gaze out at the water of Victoria Harbour, turquoise on this bright summer day. Day-trippers rush to catch their ferry to an outlying island. A couple of friends snack on fishballs from a kiosk in Pier 5. The scene is subdued compared to a few years ago—Covid-19 gathering limits are still in effect—but Hong Kong’s ferry piers remain lively places. They are points of transit, gateways to other places, but also destinations in themselves. They play the role of town square in a city always on the move.

There are 18 ferry piers with regular scheduled service in Victoria Harbour, not counting the public piers that are used by private vessels, two cruise terminals, and various government, military or industrial piers that are off-limits to the general population. They’re a crucial part of Hong Kong’s transportation network, as they have been for as long as the city has existed. But the actual location of the piers has shifted through the years, following the harbour’s coastline as it has been shaped and reshaped through generations of land reclamation. 

Some of the earliest piers would now be located far inland; Blake Pier, an Edwardian landmark with a clock tower and pitched roof, was situated near the present-day intersection of Connaught Road and Pedder Street. (It was disassembled in 1965 and rebuilt in Morse Park, then once again rebuilt in Stanley, where it sits next to the replica of Murray House.) That’s true even for piers that existed in recent memory. The Central ferry piers date back less than 30 years, having been relocated for the Airport Express terminal, Hong Kong Station and the International Financial Centre. In 2006, the demolition of the Central Star Ferry Pier—a streamlined landmark built in 1957 and known for its Modernist clock tower—and the adjacent Queen’s Pier prompted a furious outcry from the community, launching a months-long sit-in. 

That episode focused new attention on Hong Kong’s lack of heritage conservation; one could argue that Tai Kwun and other heritage projects never would have seen the light of day without the Star Ferry controversy. And the leaders of the ferry pier protests gained prominence, particularly Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, a land justice advocate who was later elected to the Legislative Council with a record number of votes. (He is now one of 53 political figures awaiting judgement under the National Security Law for having organised a primary election for the pro-democracy camp.) In a place defined by water, ferry piers are never just ferry piers: they’re a reflection of the city itself.

Hopping between piers is a way to discover all the facets of this city. In North Point, you’re greeted by a fish market whose seaside location feels particularly appropriate. There’s a dive bar nestled inside the Hung Hom pier, a humble riposte to the swanky waterfront bars elsewhere in the city. In the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, you can treat yourself to egg tarts, halal kebabs and specialty coffee. Each pier has its own atmosphere and its own aesthetic charms, like the wave-like awning outside the Kowloon City pier, or the mid-century hand-lettered signage announcing the Sai Wan Ho pier. 

The Central piers have no such verve. Most of the piers resemble concrete bunkers, except for Piers 7 and 8, which are designed in a pseudo-Victorian style meant to resemble the very first Star Ferry terminal. The public spaces in between the piers are filled with lush banyan trees, but they are also clad with the box-standard ceramic tiles that are found throughout Hong Kong, with a basic metal canopy providing shade and rain shelter along the walkways leading to and from the piers.

What the piers lack in visual charm, they make up for in dynamism. There are ten of them in the 800-metre stretch from Man Fai Street to the Hong Kong Observation Wheel. One is dedicated to government use, five serve the outlying islands, one is reserved for the Star Ferry, one for the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, and two are public piers that are particularly popular docking sites for weekend junk trips. Together, they create one of the liveliest stretches of waterfront in Hong Kong.

“I use that space in a variety of ways,” says architect Jason Hilgefort, who lives a short walk away in Sheung Wan. “Walking my dog and having a nice time in that regard, just going there to sit by the sea and look out at the city – and I also like meeting friends who are in transit, either in the morning or especially in the evenings, and going to the top of Pier 3 to meet up and have a few drinks and snacks.”

Hilgefort teaches a master’s studio in urban design at the University of Hong Kong and many of his students are interested in how the piers work as a public space. Or to be more precise, as a series of spaces, which is the key to why the piers are so lively. “Between each of the ferries, there are different public spaces,” says Hilgefort. “Some of them are more open, with steps, some are more covered with trees, with small spaces.” 

That helps the piers strike a balance between their utilitarian purpose—moving people between ferry piers and the bus terminus taxi stands and footbridges nearby or to gathering with friends—and a more recreational side. “There’s a programming of these more informal uses, whether it’s a 7-Eleven or a shop or a café, that allows people to hang out in the gaps of time,” says Hilgefort. “There’s just enough spaces where people can casually meander and hang out.” 

Some of the piers have rooftop public spaces or bars; the roof of Pier 4 has been used for a variety of events over the years, from VIP fashion shows to German artist Carsten Nicolai’s transfixing alpha pulse project. Public space advocate Paul Zimmerman, CEO of Designing Hong Kong, says he would like to see even more rooftop bars or restaurants. Hilgefort agrees. “I think the [piers] themselves can really be activated to have more events. “The tops of the buildings are not really well used at all.”

That approach could extend to other ferry piers around the harbour. Last year’s Via North Point festival transformed the North Point Public Pier into a comfortable gathering space, which could serve as inspiration for other piers. The seafood market at the adjacent North Point ferry pier could be replicated elsewhere, says Hilgefort. He also notes that since the bus terminus outside the Hung Hom pier was moved, it has been used as an informal playground by children who live nearby. “The bus lanes are a great place to race your bike,” he says. 

Maybe it’s the expansiveness of the sea that imbues the piers and their surroundings with a sense of freedom. Or maybe it’s because they are liminal spaces, neither here nor there, untethered from the congestion of city streets. Either way, they have a unique quality, which is partly what attracted former Hong Kong resident Cedric Sam to start hanging out at the Central piers. He was there at least twice a day, by virtue of living on Lamma Island. But when he discovered The Beer Bay, a stall selling draught pier near the entrance of Pier 3, he decided to invite friends to join him each Tuesday, when there was a steep discount on beer. 

“The space is free and open, like a park,” he says. “I liked that various social circles could easily mingle in this public space. I like that runners can share the space with party-goers and commuters. I liked how city life intertwined in such a special way.”

In most places, those are qualities that would have made the piers an ideal gathering space during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the risk of viral transmission much higher indoors than outdoors, open-air spaces became prized in many other cities around the world. But not in Hong Kong. Instead, when The Beer Bay patrons continued congregating at the ferry piers, police shut it down, cordoning off the nearby steps and other public spaces. 

There is still a two-person restriction on outdoor gatherings, even though eight people are allowed to gather for dinner indoors. It’s hard to say how the pandemic and its associated restrictions will evolve, but there’s still a chance the piers will eventually find their old vibrancy. 

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