Every day the Star Ferry’s fleet of eight boats carry almost 60,000 people between Tsim Sha Tsui, Central and Wanchai. The boats travel a daily average of 708km between 6.30am and 11.30pm. From staff training down to the smallest screw on deck, Chan Tsu-wing, the Star Ferry coxswain, is the man in charge.
In 1984, Chan started out in the traditional blue sailor suit still worn by the Star Ferry deck hands. Almost 30 years later, he wears a crisp, white shirt with the four-stripe insignia on his shoulder, designating Captain’s rank.
As a young man in his twenties, a job with the Star Ferry suited him well. Chan loves the sea. He worked 28 days on, seven days off. Chan preferred what may seem like a gruelling roster, it gave him the freedom to regularly visit his family home in Guangzhou. “It’s a great working environment, all day long you breathe fresh, sea air,” he says.
Chan is nostalgic when he thinks back on his early days with the company. “Back then it was the main way across the harbour”, he says. Hong Kong people relied on the service, and Chan saw of hundreds of people flowing in line for ferries that departed at three-minute intervals.
Passenger numbers have plunged since the Star Ferry’s peak days. The cross harbour tunnels and MTR crossing now offer a much faster, albeit less economical, way across the water. “But the ferry is an icon”, says Chan, and he is proud to be on board.
In 2006, land reclamation brought an end to the ferry’s home at the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier, including the famed 1950s turret clock. A 2001 environmental impact assessment warned that “No other ferry pier along the harbour could possibly perform such a symbolic function as this clock tower pier”. But the pier was destroyed. Chan has served the Hong Kong community for nearly 30 years aboard the Star Ferry, a part of Hong Kong that despite the best efforts of reclamation and development has persevered and endured for well over a century.
“Hong Kong people love us”, says Chan, “Other ferry companies are often criticised, but not us”. Even so, last year’s Lamma Ferry accident had a real and negative impact on the Star Ferry’s passenger numbers. “Since then, we are more vigilant about our guidelines and regulations”.
These days, his passengers are mainly tourists and people who are not in a rush to get to where they have to go. “They are happy and supportive”, says Chan. The Star Ferry has suffered several blows, but Chan is confident it will always run. “The management has great vision for the future. As long as we work hard and contribute to society, I think we’ll still be around”, says Chan.
After 125 years, the premium, upper-deck fare is still only HK$3.40. How can the price remain so low? “It’s an operational secret, only the big boss knows”, says Chan. He smiles as he adds: “We’re practically a public service”.