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City Weekend

Sailors jump ship leaving Hong Kong’s iconic Star Ferry urgently needing fresh talent

Chief coxswain Chan Tsu-wing has been called back from retirement twice because his expertise remains unrivalled

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 12:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 2:09pm

Chief coxswain Chan Tsu-wing misses the days when his job was all about sailing boats.

The 61-year-old father of two, the Star Ferry’s longest-serving employee, says he had to study hard and learn from his seniors in order to obtain licences for bigger boats, but now, instead of sailing, he largely spends his time managing his subordinates. He admits he would rather be out on the water.

“I’d like to be a captain if I could,” he says. “Because I’m afraid of getting too much involved in personnel issues; I’m very sick of this. If I steer a ship, I just need to focus on steering. I’d then face very few problems.”

Chan has retired twice during his 33-year career, but has subsequently been asked to come back to work twice because his experience was unrivalled, and fewer young people are joining the company’s ranks.

“If we want to protect this cultural symbol of Hong Kong, we have to have successors,” he says. “Fewer young people want to work in this field and we have no one to take our place. The most difficult thing for us is the lack of fresh talent. Nowadays, we would need to urge people to take licence examinations. People today are not as hardworking as in the past.”

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Chan started work as a sailor with the company in January 1984 after applying for the job through the Hong Kong Labour Department. He went on to become vice-chief coxswain after 15 years, before being promoted to chief coxswain in 2005.

He says that since he started working on Victoria Harbour more than three decades ago, it has become increasingly challenging to navigate the boats, and customers are becoming more demanding.

“The harbour is getting prettier, I saw the buildings completed one by one, but it is also getting narrower,” he says. “There are more ships in the harbour and customers require a higher level of service. You might say we are wasting every day or that our minds are stuck in the glory days – it depends on your perspective.”

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The Star Ferry company traces its roots back to 1880, when Indian businessman Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala saw the opportunity for a ferry service across Victoria Harbour on his steamboat The Morning Star. The operation, founded as the Kowloon Ferry Company, grew to incorporate four boats over the next 10 years.

By 1898, British businessman Sir Catchick Paul Chater had bought the entire fleet, and the operation became known as the Star Ferry Company.

The rest, as they say, is history. The company now employs about 260 people, mainly men, to operate and manage its fleet of nine iconic boats. The ferries transport about 40,000 people, a mix of tourists and commuters, across Victoria Harbour every day, from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central and Wan Chai. Fares remain relatively low in order to retain the Star Ferry as a centrepiece of Hong Kong’s public transport provisions; it costs just HK$2.50 for a single adult trip on weekdays, and HK$3.40 on weekends.

“I really love sailing the ferry,” Chan says, as he steers a group of Post journalists on a personal tour of Victoria Harbour. “The sea conditions may change in an hour, or even half an hour. Thirty years ago, black smoke poured out of the ferry’s chimney. But now you could be fined if black smoke plumes come out of the ship. It takes a lot of work to make sure the ship is environmentally friendly. Sometimes it’s easy to say, but hard to do.”

Chan also says the ferries’ controls, which at first glance provoke images from the film Titanic, are becoming more advanced.

“The most traditional but useful tool is the magnetic compass,” he says. “However, nowadays we use satellites, radar and GPS more often.”

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Chan last retired two years ago at 60 but soon after returned to work. He admits he would retire tomorrow if he were more financially secure.

“I never tell lies – if I had a lot of money, I would retire again,” he says. “Why do I need to work so hard? I need to strike a balance in my life. I think this job is very much suitable for me, and I can go on with it. I’m already in my 60s! I’ve dedicated my life to my career.”