Coming from the hyperactivity of Central, you feel the atmosphere change as soon as you step onto the footbridge linking IFC with the Central Ferry Piers. The waters of Victoria Harbour beckon; the desire to sail away grows.
The Central Ferry Piers consist of ten piers that receive passengers from the most populated of Hong Kong’s 263 outlying islands: Lantau, Lamma, Ma Wan, Cheung Chau and Peng Chau. Here, more than anywhere else, Hong Kong feels like a port, a stopover, a point of transit. About 40,000 passengers depend on these ferry routes every day, joined by plenty of tourists curious about this waterborne form of transport. How do you get by when a ferry trip separates you from your work, your studies, from all of the city’s important infrastructures? When your life is inescapably determined by sailing schedules and weather conditions?
Two companies share the responsibility of taking you across the water. The yellow and blue boats of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry take you towards Lamma Island and Peng Chau, whereas the orange and green ferries of New World First Ferry get you to Cheung Chau and Mui Wo on Lantau Island. These companies are subsidies by the government – HK$190 million between 2014 and 2017, a number that will grow to HK$410 by 2020 – which ensures their financial viability and limits the impact of fare hikes on passengers. After all, Hong Kong couldn’t survive without this mode of transport it shares with other large cities like Sydney and New York.
Each destination has its own pier and its own ambiance that seems to spill out onto the Central waterfront. Every Wednesday and Sunday, hawkers selling herbs, grains, fruits and organic vegetables offer a taste of an island life that seems simpler and saner.
You can’t access Pier 1, which belongs to government boats, and Pier 2 seems almost as quiet. It gives you access to the Park Island housing estate on the island of Ma Wan, and toy vending machines inside the pier tempt children to venture out to the Noah’s Ark theme park. But a big timetable on display reminds passengers that a bus will soon replace the majority of ferry crossings.
It’s another atmosphere entirely in Pier 3, which promises a trip to Discovery Bay aboard a glittering catamaran. Those returning to Central are greeted by palm trees and a footbridge leading directly to the IFC Mall: the height of luxury. Even the Discovery Bay Transportation Services’ ferries seem ready to compete with the cruise ships that deposit tourists in the shopping malls across the harbour.
Suited commuters emerge from the ferry in a hurry, already in a Central state of mind after a ferry ride lost in thought or in the depths of a smartphone screen. Quick, put your island behind you and arrive in Central each morning like a conquering army.
Those who don’t work nearby head towards taxis, buses, minibuses and the MTR, more grounded forms of transport that disperse the ferry passengers throughout Hong Kong, which we often forget is itself an island.
Lamma Island is an island divided. In Pier 4, you must choose between Sok Kwu Wan (west gate) or Yung Shue Wan (east gate). It’s almost as significant a distinction as that of the Right Bank or Left Bank in Paris. Passengers leave these ferries slightly dazed from the calm of the journey, dragging shopping trolleys they will fill up with goods that aren’t available on their island.
In Pier 5, it feels as though you’ve already reached Cheung Chau. The little food stalls that cluster around the pier’s entrance don’t bother to translate their menu into English. They give you the impression that you need to stuff yourself as if you are leaving on a long voyage. In fact, you have a choice of journeys: you can take the ordinary ferry — big, slow and cheap — and the fast ferry, which saves you 20 minutes off an hour-long trip.
Pier 6 shares passengers heading to diminutive Peng Chau and beachy Mui Wo. You come across latecomers running for their ferries, trolleys full of shopping goods trailing behind them. Those who miss their ferry wait patiently for the next one – a lesson in humility. Oscillating fans keep them cool in the summer.
The Star Ferry occupies a privileged position in Pier 7, at the end of a footbridge leading to Central. (You could say it’s worth a column all by itself.) It feels different because it leads towards a part of the mainland, while it’s the desire to flee that takes you to the ferry piers in the first place. Flee towards somewhere calmer, quieter, different – somewhere else.
In Pier 8, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum replaced the old Star Ferry leading to Hung Hom. It’s a lovely museum that takes you back in time, capped by a café that helps disabled people enter the workforce and which makes good use of the public terrace atop the pier.
There’s a good view from there of Piers 9 and 10, public piers that have been adopted by fishers untroubled by the constant comings and goings of yachts, red-sailed junks, sampans and fragile-looking dinghies.
All these embarkations coexist for better or worse, here in the old port of Victoria. It’s a spectacle you can watch for hours, like Otis Redding whistling The Dock of the Bay, or the fishermen-philosophers who seem ever-oblivious to the vanity of the world around them, or the temptation to escape aboard one of those ferries.
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf