Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am

Victoria Harbour seen from the deck of a Star Ferry has been a perennial Hong Kong experience for well over a century. Shorelines may come and go but the stunning vista of green mountains, glittering sea, towering buildings and waters fantastic with ships has enchanted generations of locals and visitors.

The Star Ferry owes its origins to three of Hong Kong's most significant, yet least remembered, minority communities, the Bohra Muslims, Parsees and local Portuguese; the only British and Chinese involved were the passengers.

Hong Kong's first cross-harbour service was started in 1842 by Bohra Muslim trading firm Abdoolally Ebrahim and Co, which is still in existence and Hong Kong's oldest continuously operating business. Although this service was intermittent and eventually closed down, it is often considered to be the precursor of the Star Ferry.

In the 1870s, prominent Portuguese businessman Delfino Noronha started another regular passenger service, which grew out of a private launch he ran to his country home, Delmar, located near the Yau Ma Tei waterfront, with a few paying passengers to help defray running costs. This eventually developed into a regular cross-harbour service, which was sold in 1888 to a Parsee businessman, Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, who owned a chain of bakeries and the long-gone Peak Hotel. Naorojee, in turn, was bought out by Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown, which renamed his company Star Ferry. Like much in Hong Kong, the service's heritage is more convoluted than first impressions would suggest.

These days, the Star Ferry seems terribly anachronistic. Reclamation makes harbour waters choppy, even on calm days, and the new Central pier is a long walk from anywhere. When you finally get there, the faux-Edwardian replacement clock tower is laughably out of place. Hong Kong's planners have yet to learn the cardinal rule for repro-retro design; do it very well - like the Repulse Bay complex - or don't bother. The old 1950s terminal, demolished in late 2006 to an enormous and totally unexpected public outcry was, at least, architecturally true to its era.

The Kowloon-side Star Ferry concourse seems safe for now. Half-witted plans for a tourist piazza on the adjacent bus terminus site have gone suspiciously quiet in recent months but remember - this is Hong Kong, and where the government-developer nexus is concerned, anything is possible. Watch that space.