I like being at sea level, the most base of levels, the one at which we are all equal. Trust in the sailors who handle the ferries with such ease, looking modestly up towards the heavens. With a territory covering 263 islands, boarding a ferry is effortless in Hong Kong. There is plenty of choice: a boat is always leaving and passage costs just a few dollars.
Hong Kong’s public transport system includes 22 official ferry routes, alongside 16 less regulated kaito services. Each route has its charms, its own peculiarities, and each port of call makes an imprint on the journey. From the shortest (the eight-minute crossing on the Star Ferry from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui) to the longest (an ordinary ferry crossing from Tuen Mun to Tai O will take 87 minutes), from the most comfortable to the most picturesque, each route you take leaves its own impression.
You have the choice to cross Victoria Harbour on eight different routes, or you could reach the outlying islands, including Lantau, Lamma, Peng Chau and Cheung Chau. I recommend starting off by studying a map, digital or (even better) paper, dreaming of those blue lines that intermingle on the water. Each one offers its own escape from the ordinary.
Central, North Point, Sai Wan Ho and Aberdeen are the main ports from which you can leave the island of Hong Kong. The Star Ferry, departing from Central Pier 7, is reliably magical. Nine minutes is all it takes to connect you to some extraordinary scenery. From Pier 3, the sleek ferry for Discovery Bay looks haughtily over its surroundings – but admittedly, on a stormy Sunday evening, its outer deck offers an unparalleled cinematic view over the harbour.
A little jealous of its cousin, the Park Island ferry sits discreetly at Pier 2. It has nothing to be shy about: its journey brings you close to the impressive towers of shipping containers in Hong Kong’s port before passing beneath the grandiose bridge that leads to the airport. And just to prove that the ferry business is not moribund, this June saw the reopening of the Central-Hung Hom ferry from Pier 8, which had been abandoned by the Star Ferry in 2011. It’s a chance to discover the graphic charm of the porthole windows in the Hung Hom Ferry Pier.
Across the water in North Point, you are plunged into the marine world even before boarding a boat, because the journey through the pier takes you through a fish market – lively, colourful, decked out with Buddhist prayer flags. The spiritual world is not far away. Indeed, this is where you can hitch a ride to Joss House Bay to celebrate Tin Hau once a year. It is a magical crossing during which devout worshippers release offerings into the wind.
I have a soft spot for the ferry linking the charming waterfront of Sai Wan Ho to Sam Ka Tsuen. Like a paper plane, it immediately takes you on a flight of fancy. By contrast, on board the Sai Wan Ho-Kwun Tong ferry, the somewhat worrying face of a clown watches over you, turning the passage into a mini circus show.
From the south of Hong Kong Island, leaving Aberdeen Harbour takes some time as the ferry heads west, gliding by trawlers overseen by flocks of seagulls, while sampans, yachts and motorboats dance around each other in a landscape where James Bond could make an appearance at any moment. Suddenly the ferry emerges from the harbour and its motor shudders. The three smokestacks of the Lamma Island power station loom ahead, a reminder of our industrialised world, which one could almost forget amidst the suddenly azure water.
Getting between Aberdeen and Sok Kwu Wan, on Lamma, is an unpretentious affair for the contented regulars who know this wonky line survives for their benefit. The weekly stopover in Mo Tat is cloaked in mystery. Who disembarks at this isolated pontoon? It sparks imaginings of dream lifestyles in hidden cottages.
A ferry voyage puts life on pause. A new temporality settles over the boat. Passengers read the newspaper, snooze, dream, watch things as they stream across their mobile telephone screens. Children look out captivated from the portholes.
They’re watching a great spectacle unfolding on the waves. The Macau ferry seems to float above the water as they pass colossal container ships and tiny watercraft, cruise ship tugboats and red-sailed junks, vessels sailing industriously, others languorously, arrogant or modest, some attractive, others repulsive because they pollute too much.
Then there are the strange eccentric crossings, like the one between Discovery Bay and Mui Wo, made for the benefit of schoolchildren in the mornings and evenings; or those that pass from Peng Chau to Cheung Chau without making a stop in Central, thumbing their nose at Hong Kong Island; or the passage between Tuen Mun and Tai O, which flanks the airport’s runways.
Arriving at a destination evokes a small flash of mourning for the journey that has been completed. The grind of daily life resumes far too quickly. New passengers replace the old without a second thought. Happily, there is always the return trip, which is always more serene. Because after a ferry ride, even a short one, you have the impression of coming back from afar, from a journey in and of itself. Back on land, everyone finds their equilibrium, all the richer for their sea-level encounter with the soul of Hong Kong.
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.