Eight minutes. That’s how long it takes to reach Tsim Sha Tsui from Central — Kowloon from Hong Kong Island — on board the Star Ferry. If you are heading from Wan Chai, count yourself lucky: your journey takes an extra four minutes. Four more minutes to admire the 360-degree view of Victoria Harbour and to live through one of the “top 50 experiences of your lifetime,” according to National Geographic.
The end of service to Hung Hom in 2011 extinguished another opportunity to live that experience. But nothing that happens to the Star Ferry leaves Hongkongers indifferent. Just look at the 1967 riots over a 25 percent fare hike, or the protests in 2006 over the relocation of the Central pier to its current location at Pier Number 7. The pier’s clock tower had stood over Edinburgh Place since 1957 and its demolition for the latest land reclamation scheme, Central Reclamation Phase III, left a bitter taste in the mouths of certain residents.
I can understand how they feel: they’ve been deprived of several more minutes aboard the Star Ferry! Deprived of an enchanted aside that costs less than HK$4, a charming break whose continued survival is almost a miracle in this Fragrant Harbour so eager to modernise itself. There are certain people who understand this, who routinely ignore the three road tunnels and the MTR – much less picturesque ways to cross the harbour. Theirs is an act of resistance to the fast pace that is imposed upon us as the ultimate way of being.
Let’s join them on board of one of the eight ferries currently in use, whose whimsical names invite you on a journey: Solar Star, Meridian Star, Day Star, Night Star, Northern Star, Twinkling Star, Morning Star and Silver Star. Why all these stars? It’s because the ferry company’s founder, Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, was a Parsee cook, and the star is a symbol of his religion, Zoroastrianism. He used a star to embellish the chimney of his first steam vessel in 1880. He christened it Morning Star, inspired by a poem he liked by Lord Alfred Tennyson, Crossing the Bar:
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…
The star was preserved by the four generations of ferries that succeeded the creation of the Star Ferry Company in 1898, and which survived the 1933 transition from steam to electricity and diesel.
I suggest you avoid the Night Star and Morning Star, with their incongruous bright colours and their “Asia’s World City” slogan, in favour of the more classic vessels with their sober white and green livery. For a few pennies more, upgrade to the upper deck, where you will suffer less from the noise and fumes of the diesel engine. That is, unless you prefer seeing the captain, whose bridge is situated on the lower deck. In that case, sit down on a pretty star-laded bench whose back faces whichever direction you choose, because this ingeniously symmetrical ferry is capable of navigating in both directions. Here’s a hint: the colour of the pole on the edge of the boat tells you whether it is the bow (white) or the stern (green).
The sailors who work on the pier often look sad. No doubt it’s the weight of years and routine: how many ferries have they seen come and go while they are stuck on land? How many tourists have boarded and alighted, beneath eyes moistened by a job that takes place outdoors whether it is rainy or windy, and whatever the pollution index may be? About 60,000 people take the Star Ferry each day, more than 20 million per year. Only a number 8 typhoon signal can suspend the service. 6:30am to 11:30pm; every seven minutes during rush hour. The ropes are heavy, the gestures repetitive.
Four musical notes signal the beginning of the journey. Flush with the water, at a speed of several knots, time seems suddenly suspended. You start to daydream, so small in front of this immensity, half-listening to the safety announcement delivered in Cantonese and then in English. There are sampans around, a junk with colourful sails — rehabilitated for the benefit of tourists and those gripped by nostalgia — and little fishing boats unintimidated by the container ships and tugboats that pass nearby. It’s not surprising that this cinematic scene was the backdrop for the famed encounter between the young American painter Robert Lomax and Wan Chai ingenue Suzie Wong, in 1957’s The World of Suzie Wong, directed by Richard Mason.
We reach the other side far too quickly. We are barely off the boat when new passengers come aboard — happy people! — and just like a shooting star, our vessel has already departed to the other side, leaving only a trace, an evanescent memory, in its poetic wake.
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.