New pier an ironic voyage into the past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2006, 12:00am

The new, old-look Star Ferry Pier brings back to Hong Kong the colonial past that, until recently, there has been an eagerness to obliterate. For those who have seen such buildings smashed by demolition balls and replaced by glass and steel, the structure is at best ironic, at worst, cringe-invoking.

Worryingly, for those living in the present rather than the past, the pier is a reminder that our government functions on short-sighted whims rather than well-planned strategies.

A casual inspection of the Hong Kong Island waterfront, comprising decades of reclamations covered by roads and other infrastructure and fringed by ferry terminals, readily confirms this. That is what is also happening to the present Star Ferry and adjoining Queen's piers, which will close in November and start disappearing to road construction work.

The old Star Ferry pier building is unremarkable and has served the city for little more than half a century. Neighbouring Queen's Pier opened in 1953 and has less to offer that is visually pleasing, being concrete and metal railings. Both were moved from where Connaught Road now runs due to a previous reclamation.

With an eye on a growing public desire to preserve the past - as evidenced by debate over the fate of the Central Police Station and adjoining Victoria prison - the government has tried to show that it is also heritage-conscious with a new Star Ferry Pier reflecting that mood. Inspiration was not far away, if a glance at the Star Ferry website's page of historic photographs is any guide: architects have tried to recreate the pier of early last century.

Tourists and those too young to remember will be fooled; those knowing what has vanished in the name of property booms or caring to seek out photos of our more distant past understand better: dozens of the same type of structure the government has recreated abounded in Hong Kong just a handful of decades ago.

Among them was Kowloon station, a venerable Victorian building that marked the terminus of the Kowloon-Canton railway until 1974 and pulled down to make way for the Cultural Centre. Debate raged over its destruction, and all that remains on the site is the clock tower.

But there is more to the paradox than architecture because in deeming the soon-to-be-demolished Star Ferry and Queen's piers not worthy of preservation, the government is also trampling on collective memory. For half a century, these have been places for people to take wedding photos, go on dates, fish, board pleasure boats or simply go about their lives. With them gone, memories will fade.

In the style of Disneyland, the government is trying to bring the past back to life with the new Star Ferry Pier. But if it had a clearer vision with an eye on the future, rather than just the present generations, it would not need to waste resources on being in the replica-making business.