When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying officially opens the relocated Hong Kong Maritime Museum tomorrow, it will mark a sea change in the attitude the city has towards its harbour and rich ocean-faring past.

Amid the sound of champagne corks popping at Pier 8, at the heart of Central's waterfront, there is likely to be mutual congratulations and backslapping as the great and the good of the city offer gushing speeches full of the usual clichés about Victoria Harbour being a Hong Kong icon, the jewel in its crown and its lifeline. The harbour's more ignominious recent history - decades of abuse and neglect at the hands of the city's government - may well be glossed over.

It's a history that has left residual feelings of distrust and suspicion, and much of the harbour buried under concrete. Even today, it is impossible to walk along most of the front of our harbour, the majority of citizens have no easy access to it and, on some days, the air pollution is so dense you can hardly see across it.

So why has Hong Kong done such an awful job of looking after its most prized asset and appeared largely uninterested in its own maritime heritage? And are things really changing for the better?


THE MUSEUM'S DIRECTOR, Richard Wesley, is a cultural-heritage professional from Australia. He was recruited to oversee the relocation of the museum from Stanley to its new home.

Certainly, he says, the museum has no intention of air-brushing over the issue of aggressive reclamation by successive governments: "We will be explaining the history of the harbour and, in the viewing gallery, we show a map of the current museum location, which is actually 800 metres from the original coastline."

Indeed, as Christina North (the British woman who was born on a Star Ferry vessel in 1956 and returned to Hong Kong for the first time this month) has just found out, the harbour is little more than half of its original size, and the ferry trip from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central now takes only a few minutes, the harbour's width having shrunk from 2,300 to just 910 metres. It often takes longer for a ferry to come alongside and secure lines in the increased currents than it does to make the crossing.

Wesley does not support the theory that there is some sort of cultural blind spot in Hong Kong when it comes to the harbour and all things nautical, and rejects the idea that the fact the museum is privately funded shows a lack of commitment from government.

"The museum is not for profit; I hate the word 'private' - it's been created for the benefit of the public and the biggest shareholder is the government, which provided and developed this site at Pier 8," he says.

One of the museum's lower-profile exhibits was presented to it in a ceremony just a few days ago, but it is arguably its most important. The official assent certificate for the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, signed on June 27, 1997, was presented by Winston Chu Ka-sun, founder of the Society for the Protection of the Harbour. This was the law that (eventually) stopped the flow of concrete.

Chu is an ardent supporter of the museum but having spent 18 years and more than HK$24 million of his own money fighting the government to protect the harbour - and having received a few death threats and lost many clients from his legal firm in the process - he remains, understandably, cautious.

It was in 1994, when Chu was serving on the Town Planning Board, that he was summoned to his mother's apartment, on Robinson Road, which enjoyed panoramic views over the reclamation projects going on in Victoria Harbour. His mother then subjected him to what he describes as a "tirade".

"You people are ruining our harbour," she told him.

"She was 80 years old and only five feet tall but she was a fierce lady," recalls Chu, who promptly made a request to see the government's reclamation plan. The documents, which very few people had seen, revealed that 1,297 hectares were to be filled in, half of which were already reclaimed or on the way to being so. Victoria Harbour was being reduced to little more than a polluted stream between Central and Kowloon.

"It was government policy to reclaim," says Chu, sitting in his solicitor's office in Admiralty, neatly groomed and wearing an immaculate grey suit with a conservative silk tie. This member of the establishment seems an unlikely revolutionary, but a revolution is what he and his mother started. They formed the Save our Harbour campaign, collecting 300,000 signatures of support and led marches through the streets.

"Oh, I am a rebel," says Chu enthusiastically, though it is hard to imagine him dressed in a beret and camouflage combat jacket. It was Chu who drafted the Protection of the Harbour Bill, which was submitted to the Legislative Council by Christine Loh Kung-wai (then a legislative councillor) as a private member's bill. Miraculously it became law three days before the handover.

"I had to fight tooth and nail to get that law passed," recalls Chu, whose bedtime reading then was ancient military treatise The Art of War. And that should have been a turning point - but the government decided to ignore the new ordinance and carried on reclaiming anyway. Since 1997, the Society for the Protection of the Harbour has taken the government to court seven times to enforce the law.

"We had to stop the police force from robbing the banks," says Chu, cheerfully.

It wasn't until 2008 that the government finally pledged to leave the harbour alone, 14 years after Chu's meeting with his mother on Robinson Road and 11 years after the harbour ordinance was passed.

"The government had no choice but to fight me or they would have gone bankrupt. The basic problem is we don't have a government; we have a corporation," explains Chu. He believes that, having such a narrow tax base, Hong Kong is dependent on revenues from land sales, so the authorities must act like a corporation, and maximise financial returns, rather than a government, which should put the needs of its people first.

While this pressure to find land remains, along with a reluctance to develop in the New Territories, where there are powerful vested interests, the coastal waters of Hong Kong will continue to be at risk. Although Chu and his colleagues have ring-fenced the harbour from the land-sale policy of the government, the rest of our coastline is still very much up for grabs.

"[And even] the harbour is not safe until they overcome the hurdles for developing the New Territories," stresses Chu, adding that another key step will be the replacement of the Harbourfront Commission with a statutory authority, a development supported by Leung in his maiden policy address, last month.

The chair of the Harbourfront Commission is Nicholas Brooke, an eminent and urbane chartered surveyor and respected property consultant with an easy air of authority. The commission's main job is to scrutinise and advise the seven government departments responsible for the harbour vicinity on their, largely unco-ordinated, proposals. Brooke explains that the "government wanted us to police and enhance the waterfront - [but] it has been more of a damage-limitation exercise".

Like Chu, Brooke thinks the establishment of a harbour authority will be a game changer, as the government has also committed to the idea that waterfront land will come within the purview of the new body.

"There is 73 kilometres of waterfront in Hong Kong and the government can vest the 70 per cent they own," he explains. This would give the new authority the ability to plan, design and implement operations in those areas.

It is hard for anyone with a love of things maritime not to feel a warm surge of enthusiasm as Brooke reels off a menu of exciting projects the new body would like to undertake, including a water-sports centre at Kai Tak, water taxis, yacht marinas and a historic-ship haven. The list continues: a boardwalk under the Island Eastern Corridor in Quarry Bay, parks, promenades, cycle routes, al-fresco bars and restaurants, quiet sitting areas, a Ferris wheel, fishing zones.

"We need a vast viewing tower at the end of Kai Tak runway and we need some major attractions to draw people in," he says.

Brooke also believes historic ships and attractions that properly reflect the maritime history of the city should all be part of the mix, to banish any fears the harbour will be treated like a theme park rather than a working stretch of water, and he insists there will be plenty of public engagement over what he calls the "mood of the harbour front".

"The harbour is part of Hong Kong's heritage, its history - even the name Hong Kong means 'fragrant harbour'," Brooke points out.

It was that name that inspired a former journalist and keen sailor from South Africa to start publishing a magazine shortly after he arrived in Hong Kong, in 1982. Fragrant Harbour has been celebrating the harbour and fervently supporting the city's maritime connections for 28 years, garnering a loyal readership of yachties and marine types in Hong Kong and beyond.

Founder David Robinson is as passionate about Hong Kong, its harbour and its maritime culture as he was in 1982 and is a big supporter of the museum, which the magazine campaigned for between 1987, when Macau opened its maritime museum, and September 2005, when the Stanley premises opened.

"We always get more feedback and comment from our readers on our popular history articles than our sailing and water-sports pieces," says Robinson, who thinks the biggest positive change in the harbour has been the massive improvement in water quality, which allowed the traditional shore-to-shore swim to be resumed two years ago.

"We have to be ever vigilant," though, says Robinson. "We don't want to lose [the harbour's] magnificence [or] for it to be reduced to a pond. It must keep its energy and vibrancy and recognise where it came from and why it is one of the world's greatest ports - if not the greatest."

It's an important point, for many people talk about the harbour in the past tense, as though it was only important before Hong Kong's wealth creators graduated to more refined economic activities, such as banking, real estate and the retailing of designer handbags.

Hong Kong remains a hugely successful port city, even if the most significant activity is now centred on the container terminals at Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi. According to the World Shipping Council, Hong Kong is the third busiest container port in the world (behind Shanghai and Singapore), handling more than double the cargo volume of Rotterdam, Hamburg or Los Angeles.

In 2011, more than 400,000 ships arrived in and departed from Hong Kong and 25.5 million passengers used the cross-boundary ferry services. Fifteen thousand, four hundred vessels are licensed to operate in and around Hong Kong, from super yachts to sampans, tugs and fishing boats. Visiting warships and luxury passenger liners steam in from all over the world.

The operation that supports and directs this mass floating theatre, from fire vessels and search and rescue teams, to vessel traffic management and pilotage, is run by the Marine Department. Its hi-tech vessel management headquarters, complete with radar tracking and identification, CCTV monitors and VHF radio networks, remain in the heart of Victoria Harbour, in the Macau Ferry Terminal.

The harbour is hardly a moribund backwater ready for transformation into a theme park, then, and perhaps it would be more of a source of pride for Hongkongers if they had better access to it or more information about it, and the importance of the city's maritime tradition.

Dr Stephen Davies, research fellow at the Maritime Museum, has done as much as anyone to further the cause of Hong Kong's sea-faring heritage over the past 10 to 15 years. How much does he think maritime matters actually matter to the people of Hong Kong?

"At the moment, they don't matter much. For most it's the surface imagery that is of concern - what's happening to the view, which is why the policy response is a pretty waterfront," he says.

He concedes that Hongkongers are determined to avoid having theirs destroyed but thinks this is still more about a sentimental memory than an interest in the real nuts and bolts of a harbour, with its wharfs, stevedores, tugs, go-downs and piers. The real harbour has moved north and west, points out Davies, and this shift is recognised in museum displays. Between the island and Tsim Sha Tsui, he fears, we may be left with what he calls "just a recreational space and a memory".

"The harbour is part of our social identity - it's the backdrop that we don't want to change," says Davies.

Perhaps the most impressive exhibit at Pier 8 is a newly created 360-degree digital recreation of an ori-ginal Qing dynasty silk scroll depicting one of the largest pirate battles in Asia. It illustrates the efforts of Viceroy Bailing to quell infamous local pirates such as Cheung Po Tsai in the Jiaqing period (1796-1820). Being immersed in an animated 3D pirate battle fought just north of Lantau Island in the early 19th century is well worth the HK$30 entrance fee alone.

And while locals and visitors enjoy this historical experience, they may wish to consider one small irony. The site of that famous pirate battle, near Tung Chung, is about to be reclaimed for housing and to accommo-date what the government calls a "bridgehead economy" - apropos of its proximity to the planned Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge - which means that the site of one of Asia's most important pirate battles will be buried under concrete and tower blocks.

So take a trip to the impressive new museum and enjoy the colourful stories of pirates, junks, opium, smuggling, shipwrecks, conflict and trade; but bear in mind, as you wander around Pier 8, that, even though the harbour seems protected for now, the people of Hong Kong may yet have more sea battles to fight if the rest of their coastline is not to be lost to developers.