On April 1, about 25 years ago, the South China Morning Post ran a story claiming the government planned to fill in the entire harbour. It would all be concreted over, except for a narrow channel across the middle to allow the Star Ferry to take tourists to and fro, according to the story. 'I can't remember the year exactly but it was very well done and a shocking thought, though of course it was an April Fool joke,' says Andy Chworosky, 40, co-partner of the Fat Angelo's chain of restaurants. Like many who have lived here a long time, he feels a deep affinity for Hong Kong's most famous attraction and reminisces about a time when the harbour was altogether more peaceful, with less traffic and calmer waters. One urban myth he is keen to dispel, however, is that reclamation has reduced the Central Star Ferry journey time to five from 15 minutes. For many people sentimentality has misted the reality that the Star Ferry piers have not moved in recent decades, though under the current Central Reclamation Phase III scheme to reclaim 23 hectares of new land from the harbour, they are scheduled to shift north, closer to the outlying ferry piers. A Kowloon resident, Mr Chworosky remembers catching the Star Ferry on his way to school in Repulse Bay in 1973. 'The journey time hasn't got shorter but it is, and was, long enough for the Star Ferry to get lost in the fog,' he says. 'The ferry driver couldn't see where he was going and we ended up facing back towards Kowloon.' With the number of dredgers, tugs and fast ferries crowding the harbour now it is hard to imagine that occurring today without a major collision. Many who fear for the harbour's fate have commercial as well as sentimental concerns. The decades of reclamation off West Kowloon, Central and Wan Chai have led to choppy seas and fewer big ships mooring in the harbour, squeezing out Captain Yip and his once lucrative water-taxi business. A wallah-wallah (little wooden boat) driver for 35 of his 55 years, he used to make a living ferrying people to shore from big ships moored in the harbour. Captain Yip fondly remembers the days when many small craft operated in the central harbour, saying not only have moorings dwindled, but the waters between Ocean Terminal and the outlying island piers have become a hazardous bottleneck for small boats. 'The big waves stirred up by the fast ferries echo back and forth between the walls because the water has nowhere to go - the channel is too narrow,' he says. Now a pleasure-junk captain, he dreads going to Queen's Pier to collect trippers. 'It's so rough,' he says. 'If the boat is unloaded it can be tossed over by a wave. Once full of people, it can also hit a big wave and capsize.' For some people, key places in their lives exist only as memories because of harbour reclamation. Interior designer Freddie Ng, 37, remembers his school journey in the late 1970s involved a ferry trip from Jordan pier to Central. Since then the landfill around Yau Ma Tei has consumed the pier in Jordan and the area is now destined to become part of the residential area with cultural amenities planned for the West Kowloon reclamation project. Before the opening of the MTR in 1979, the harbour was a key feature of many people's lives. 'You had to cross it - there was no choice,' Mr Ng says, recalling the thrill of riding on the lower car deck that seemed almost level with the water. As a teenager, he remembers sitting at the pier having bought his breakfast of 'dragon boat dumplings' waiting for the ferry and looking out across the peaceful harbour. 'You can't find that quiet in Hong Kong any more; the harbour is too noisy.' To many lifelong Hongkongers, the destruction of the harbour is incomprehensible. 'Can you imagine Sydney filling in their harbour?' says filmmaker Elaine Marden. Her mother, Betty Forsgate, remembers sailing into Hong Kong harbour on October 13, 1947, with her husband Gerry, who was taking up his posting at Kowloon Wharf. It was the end of a two-month voyage from Liverpool via the Suez Canal and she recalls sailing past numerous ships unloading at sea. 'There were no containers then,' she says, returning to a time when the inner harbour was full of Yau Ma Tei ferries and junks plying the waters between the Pearl River Delta and Chinese ports. In the current row over reclamation between Central and Wan Chai it is easy to forget that Victoria Harbour has been shrinking since 1842, the year China ceded Hong Kong 'in perpetuity' to Britain. Scarcity of land and the hilly terrain made this inevitable. In the decades since, the government has reclaimed more than half the harbour area for new land from Central, Wan Chai, Kowloon Bay, Kwun Tong and Kwai Chung. Bearing in mind that Queen's Road was once the shoreline and Bonham Strand was just that, much of what is now the expensive Central business district is built on reclaimed land. Until 1904 the tramline marked the waterfront on the island, and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, Jardine House and Exchange Square all stand on land reclaimed from 1843 to 1979. Further east, those with memories stretching back to the late 1920s and early 1930s would remember donkey rides on the beach at North Point, which is now built up with housing estates, a police station and the Eastern Harbour corridor. Over the years the government has taken a two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach to reclamation, in which plans have been proposed and abandoned quietly. The current batch of reclamation plans, which includes Central Reclamation Phases I-III, were mostly hatched within the past 30 years. In 1994, anticipating that population growth along harbour-front areas would increase by one million people to 4.3 million, the government sent to the Town Planning Board a blueprint that showed large-scale reclamation proposed for Kowloon Point, Kowloon Bay, Green Island, Central and Wan Chai. This would add 60 hectares of new land reclaimed from the harbour, on top of the 411 hectares being reclaimed from projects already underway in 1994. But this week, with the Central-Wan Chai reclamation plan the centre of the legal battle between government and the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, scotched as untrue reported plans to reclaim land in Tsim Sha Tsui East, Kowloon Point, Tsuen Wan and Green Island. 'This is simply not the case,' he said, although he admitted feasibility studies had been conducted. It seems the government's various and wide-ranging reclamation plans have only recently provoked the ire of the public, because previously few understood what was going on. Former legislator and harbour activist Christine Loh Kung-wai complained as far back as 1995 that there were few public checks on government planning decisions in Hong Kong. 'After a final decision is taken by the chief secretary, a map showing the reclamation plan is publicly gazetted. The public then has only two months to send in objections,' she said. The government had no statutory obligation to reduce planning studies, development options or any other information upon which decisions were based. 'Nor can the public appeal against the decisions to an independent body,' she added. Mr Ng echoes the views of many Hong Kong people, however, when he says it's too late now to wind back the clock. 'What's lost is lost. All we can do is prevent it getting worse.'