Neighbourhood Sounds

Hongkongers cherish shoreline memories of Victoria Harbour (video)

Residents who recall the Star Ferry's heyday and a wider waterfront teeming with sampans hope the site's heritage will be preserved

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 5:48pm

The tram tracks once ran along Hong Kong Island's shoreline and where Tsim Sha Tsui's row of seafront hotels now lies, was the landmark shipping terminal "Blue Funnel", where sampans and tugboats crowded the waterfront.

Victoria Harbour teemed with toiling workers, while big cargo ships lay quietly at anchor in the distance.

Over the years, the harbour has changed dramatically, soaring skyward on reclaimed land on the island to make best use of scarce acreage along the shore.

Today, a debate continues on harbour preservation and the use of empty Kai Tak land as well as the newly reclaimed 18 hectares outside Wan Chai.

But old memories run deep for people who still remember the harbour as more than just a pretty picture.

Click on picture below to launch interactive graphic

Former seaman Li Charn-hoi, 78, recalled the excitement he felt as his cargo ship sailed back into Victoria Harbour after two years away from home.

"I was pointing to my shipmates where everything was - the ferry piers, Tamar, the typhoon shelter," he said with a smile.

Li started as an apprentice at the Royal Navy Dockyard built in 1875 at the Tamar site in Admiralty, now the Hong Kong government headquarters.

When it closed in 1957, Li was given a job with the Blue Funnel Line shipping company at an import-export terminal across the harbour in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Simply known as "the Blue Funnel" among locals, the terminal was set up in 1910 and officially named Holt's Wharf after Blue Funnel Line's founder.

The terminal was an important landmark and testament to Hong Kong's booming import-export trade. It was sold in 1971 to New World Development and developed into what is today's New World Centre and the Intercontinental Hong Kong.

On reclamation, Li said it was inevitable then as Hong Kong was in need of land, but warned it should "stop when we have enough".

Drag the toggle across the graphic to see "before-and-after" effects of Hong Kong's territorial expansion into the sea 

"What's the use if all we have left is a creek? All the history and the unique environment [we] can boast of will be gone," he said.

Chan Ngan, 87, recalled taking the tram along the seafront in the summer, so she could "catch a breeze". She was born into a family of boat people at Sai Ying Pun beside Western Market, which she remembered being called the "chicken duck market" for the fresh produce it sold.

The family made money transporting rice from cargo ships in the harbour to the piers at Sai Ying Pun.

After the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, they made a living carrying travellers from their ships to shore, and selling daily necessities from their boat.

"There weren't a lot of cars back then - land transport was not as convenient as water transport," Chan said.

The years of occupation, from 1941 to 1945, were the hardest for her.

The Japanese would drop bombs in the harbour as part of their military practice. Chan once rescued an old woman and two young girls whose boat had been shattered, and had been left clinging to broken timbers.

She moved onto land after her wedding and recalled her days on the boats as "tough but memorable". "Most of the things are gone - the harbour is almost all gone. All we have are our memories," she said.

The harbour's width has shrunk from 2,300 metres to just 910 metres, after more than a century of reclamation work that yielded more than 2,800 hectares of land.

"Memories of a vibrant harbour", video by Helene Franchineau

And few saw the changes more clearly than Star Ferry chief shipmaster Chan Tsu-wing, 57, who started as a sailor in 1984.

"Reclamation has seriously affected the water currents and made it harder for us to moor boats," he said. "The pollution is also quite bad."

Passenger numbers on the ferries have been steadily falling.

"Back when I was a sailor, a lot of white-collar and blue-collar workers would use ferries to go to work each day," Chan said.

"We used to be the major mode of transport. Now we're just supporting transport. I hope we won't deteriorate into just tourist transport."

More than 71,000 people rode the Tsim Sha Tsui to Central route daily in 1994, Star Ferry general manager Johnny Leung Tak-hing said. After the Western Harbour Tunnel was built in 1998 numbers went down to 58,000 a day, falling further to 39,000 when the Central piers were moved to their present spot outside the IFC.

"I hope [the Star Ferry] can survive. This is an important piece of Hongkongers' collective memory … I hope Hongkongers will start to cherish the harbour," Leung said.

Harbourfront Commission chairman Nicholas Brooke firmly believes the waterfront belongs to Hong Kong people.

And there is hope for its preservation, with the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance deeming it "a special public asset and a natural heritage", and enshrining "a presumption against reclamation in the harbour".

A Court of Final Appeal judgment in 2004 also stipulated that reclamation would be permitted only if an "overriding public need" was proven. "We are talking about bringing the harbour to the people, and the people to the harbour. It's a community asset," said Brooke.

"At the moment, it's very difficult to get to the harbour, and when you do get there, it's hard to walk along it."

With the waterfront on both sides totalling 73km "clearly there is a chance to do something for everybody," Brooke said.

"In many ways, I think it's the soul of Hong Kong. It's beating. It's the jewel in the crown. That is what we seek to bring out in all the initiatives that we are planning around the waterfront. What we want to develop is a sense of ownership."