When Colin Chan was a child growing up in the 1960s in Yim Tin Tsai, a picturesque island village in Sai Kung, there was just one way to get on and off the island: a small wooden ferry known as a kaito (gaa1 dou6 街渡). “It left early in the morning and came back in the middle of the afternoon,” says Chan. Villagers woke up at dawn, hopped on the ferry and came back with goods from the market in Sai Kung. If you missed the last boat, you were out of luck.
There were more choices of transport in the urban areas. If you missed the last Star Ferry at 1:30am, you could hire a walla-walla (waa4 laa1 waa4 laa1 嘩啦嘩啦), a kind of small motorised water taxi that plied the waters between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. “The name came from the sound of the boats when they were cruising,” says retired journalist Li Ping-sum, who grew up in Yau Ma Tei. Each walla-walla could hold 20 to 30 people, and the driver would only set off when the boat was full – just like red minibuses today.
Hong Kong exists today because of its water. The city’s many harbours, coves and inlets are what drew Chinese settlers here about 2,000 years ago, and it was the reason the British claimed Hong Kong Island as a spoil in 1839-42 Opium War. For most of its history, the best way to get around Hong Kong was by boat – a heritage that has been increasingly neglected as the city turns its back on the water.
It was a British man named Grant Smith who launched Hong Kong’s first ferry service when he bought a second-hand boat from England and began running it between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui in 1870. Service was irregular until a Parsi opium trader named Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala bought Smith’s boat and launched the Kowloon Ferry Company in 1888. A few years later, he bought two steamships, Morning Star and Evening Star, which were soon joined by another pair, Rising Star and Guiding Star. The ferries crossed the harbour every eight minutes — about 147 crossings a day — and were instrumental to the development of Kowloon into a major commercial and residential district.
In 1898, shortly before his retirement, Naorojee renamed his company the Star Ferry, and sold it to the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company, a joint venture between trading company Jardine Matheson and Sir Paul Chater, a prominent local businessman. (Today, the Star Ferry is still owned by the same company, which is now known as The Wharf.) Meanwhile, a competing company, the Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry, began offering regular services to Kowloon in 1897.
For the next several decades, the two companies operated as a duopoly. In 1941, when the Japanese invaded and occupied Hong Kong, the Yaumati ferries were allowed to continue operating, but the Star Ferry was commandeered by the Japanese military, which used the boats to transport prisoners of war from Sham Shui Po to Kai Tak Airport.
Hong Kong’s postwar population boom marked the golden era of ferry service in the city. With few road and rail links, ferries became the best way for people to travel across town. My father in law grew up in Cheung Sha Wan and attended school at King’s College on Bonham Road; every morning, he took a bus to the Sham Shui Po ferry pier, where he hopped on a boat to Sai Ying Pun. As industrial districts mushroomed along the waterfront, goods, services and workers all made their way by boat.
Ferries allowed even isolated places to boom. Today, Peng Chau is a sleepy hideaway, but for decades after World War II, it was a bustling place packed with small workshops and ceramics factories. In 1985, journalist William Schwalbe described the journey to the island for the New York Times:
The ferries have three sections. The top, first class, is often air-conditioned and has a pleasant cafeteria counter selling noodles and beer. The seats are hard but comfortable, and the windows are glass. In the back is a sundeck and one can drag out a chair and watch the Hong Kong and Kowloon skylines recede beneath the choppy blue waves. And there is nothing wrong with the second level, regular class. The seats are bench-style and there is an open area in the back, under the top sundeck.
The steerage, below, makes up in interest what it lacks in comfort. You see sampans, junks and the hulls of great tankers pass by at eye level as the boats jockey for position in the world’s third largest container port. The steerage section is filled with boxes and baskets stuffed with household goods, the benches are in jumbled rows and people crowd the back for air. There are no windows upfront, just canvas and oilcloth and the air grows thick with sweat and sea spray. The ferry is the only form of transportation to Peng Chau; all goods must come there in steerage.
Ferry piers buzzed with activity. Hawkers thronged the Peng Chau pier, selling snacks like cooked squid, chicken’s feet, fishballs, chestnuts and fish intestines for 12 cents apiece. In Kowloon, the Jordan Road Ferry Pier was a go-to spot for seafood, which you could buy from a walla-walla bobbing in the harbour. Men fished in the afternoon and children played with remote-controlled cars. Dai pai dongs lined the nearby typhoon shelter. Every few minutes, double-decker buses deposited passengers heading to Sham Shui Po, Mongkok, Tsim Sha Tsui or Central. A car ferry made the journey, too – the only way to drive between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Boats weren’t just for moving people; they also moved goods. Every morning, Hong Kong’s newspapers were printed and deposited near the waterfront in Central, where they were loaded onto walla-wallas and distributed to Kowloon and the New Territories.
Everything changed when the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972. Demand for walla-wallas dried up, and ferry services began a long, slow decline. Major land reclamation projects in the 1980s and 90s trapped waterfront neighbourhoods behind hundreds of hectares of new land. What was once the Jordan Road Ferry Pier is now a 20-minute walk from the harbour, through a tangle of expressways and service roads.
The decline has only accelerated in recent years. After the Central Ferry Pier was moved from Edinburgh Place to a new site 400 metres away in 2006, Star Ferry ridership plummeted; the extra seven-minute walk to the new pier added too much time to the commute of Central office workers. In 2011, the Star Ferry cancelled its services between Hung Hom, Wan Chai and Central. Other harbour routes have disappeared in recent years, too, and even the kaito services between various outlying islands are beginning to vanish. In 2007, there were 75 licenced kaitos in Hong Kong; today, that number is 69.
There is one sign of hope, though. Hong Kong’s Harbourfront Commission has been looking at ways to improve public access to Victoria Harbour. Though purely an advisory body, the commission has helped raise awareness about the harbour, and it has pushed along plans to build a public boardwalk beneath the Island East Corridor, an elevated highway built along the water in the 1980s. The commission’s chairman, Nicholas Brooke, says underused or vacant ferry piers could be refashioned into community gathering spaces. And there’s an opportunity to bring more boats back into the harbour. “One of the things we’ve been talking about is the evolution of a water taxi system similar to what you have in Sydney or New York,” he says.
For now, it’s just an idea – but Brooke thinks it could become reality as more waterfront attractions are developed, including the West Kowloon Cultural District. Think of it as a 21st century version of the walla-walla.