The well-trodden gangplanks will soon be raised for the last time at the Star Ferry pier in Central. Slated for demolition to make way for an enormous shopping mall, the pier will close sometime in the third quarter of this year, says the government. But although its task has been mandated, the demolition team faces considerable objections from citizens and conservation groups, not to mention some of the men who have worked at the pier for decades. Opposition is understandable when you consider the emblematic status the ferries, pier and clock tower have attained. When it comes to having earned one's stripes as a venerable part of Hong Kong's textured cultural history, Star Ferry probably sports the most. The elderly boats, heaving with camera-wielding tourists, are a sight intrinsic to Victoria Harbour. Every day, the 12 'Stars' loll and rock across the waters, dodging freight carriers and sampans to deliver their human cargo safely to the other side. The service - which has operated since 1898 - has weathered 99 years of colonial rule, countless typhoons, the transition from coal to diesel, a washed-out handover and a murky blanket of smog. It has ferried innumerable passengers between the Island and Kowloon. It was on board a Star that Robert Lomax met the sultry Suzie Wong in Richard Mason's novel The World of Suzie Wong. The Star Ferry Co even managed to spark one of Hong Kong's most infamous riots, by announcing a fare rise of 5 HK cents back in 1966. The result was unprecedented. Hundreds of angry people took to the streets, resulting in the death of one and dozens of injuries and arrests. Since then, the company has kept fares low; there aren't many excursions you can take in Hong Kong for HK$2.20. It has endured a lot in just under 50 years, but the pier is unlikely to survive the next few weeks. In the absence of a remarkable volte-face, the ferries that dock at the 48-year-old pier will soon begin tying up to a new structure - based on a design in use in 1912 - further west, closer to Two IFC and near the departure points of vessels heading to the outlying islands. Conservation activists are spearheading a last-minute drive to save the pier. Project See, a local sustainable-development concern group, is at the helm of a petition launched last month to collect the names of people opposed to the demolition. Patsy Cheng Man-wah, the group's director, was scheduled to submit the signatures to the government by today, along with a manifesto and proposal outlining the importance of salvaging the building from the wrecking ball. She was hoping for 7,000 names with which to flood Legislative Council pigeon holes. 'I think there's a chance it will be brought up for discussion after the mailout,' she says. 'The demolition of the pier and clock tower is unnecessary. We feel the structure could be easily integrated into any future projects the government has for the land.' Fifteen local artists with professional and student backgrounds will meet today in Edinburgh Place to echo Cheng's sentiments by holding a public art performance. Organised by Project See and Habitus, a group with similar aims, the performance will consist of one group constructing a replica clock tower while another conducts a sketching session, whereby passers-by can have a drawing done of themselves beside the clock tower. Cheng says historians and some Legco members have already contacted her to show their support. 'The fact is; age should not have anything to do with a building's cultural significance,' she says. 'Look at the service this building has provided for the city in its time. It's like saying an old artist has more significance than a younger one or vice versa - the idea is absurd.' The story of the existing Central pier began in 1958 and marked a new era for Star Ferry in post-war Hong Kong. The service was undergoing a much-needed facelift. New vessels had been put to work and the piers in Central and Kowloon were replaced. The construction of the Central pier was largely completed in 1957 but, due to delays, it wasn't operational until the following year. Its main feature and focal point was its mechanical clock, presented to the company by former Jardine Matheson chairman Sir John Keswick. Today, it still belts out timely reminders every 15 minutes. It is not only commuters and Star Ferry staff who will be affected by the demolition. At the pier itself, family-run businesses sell cheongsams and souvenirs to curious tourists. Street vendors peddling magazines, drinks and cigarettes are permanent fixtures, catering to the daily throng of commuters. And domestic helpers flock to the walkways at weekends, filling the air with excited chatter. But the wrecking ball will soon consign all this to memory. The fate of the pier's prime location lies in the blueprints for the Central Reclamation Phase III project, which includes a proposed 'groundscraper' - a horizontal skyscraper. Along with Queen's Pier, the area will be flattened and more land reclaimed to provide the development's foundation. The plan is also perceived as a way to alleviate increasing traffic congestion. For senior staff members at the Star Ferry Co, the project raises important issues other than those relating to conservation. Reclamation means navigating the ever-shrinking Victoria Harbour has become more challenging for Star Ferry's helmsmen, who together make up to 300 crossings a day. Everyone who works with the fleet completes a compulsory navigational skills course but in recent years coxswains have needed additional training to hone their berthing skills to cope in what can be difficult conditions. Star Ferry general manager Johnny Leung Tak-hing says many workers, some of whom have toiled for the firm for decades, are upset by the changes they're about to face. But while they might not be thrilled about the march of progress, they are prepared to knuckle down and get on with the job. 'We just have to accept the way things are,' says Leung. 'After all, the land is government owned. The company doesn't have any power in these kinds of decisions. But all of these men are fiercely loyal and whatever happens, we are incredibly lucky to have such a team working for us.' Even Nancy Kwan, who helped to cement the pier's status with her on-screen meeting with actor William Holden in the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, accepts the demolition is a foregone conclusion. 'Changes are inevitable; we just have to go with the flow,' the leading lady says. 'After all, they are moving the location, not disbanding the Star Ferry. As for the reclaimed land, just think - maybe someday we'll be able to walk across from Kowloon to Hong Kong.' Cheng, on the other hand, isn't so resigned to the pier's fate. 'I think we have a good chance of saving the building,' she says. 'It's part of something steeped in history. After all, that building reflects the way Hongkongers were thinking at that point in time. The Star Ferry pier refers to Victoria Harbour - everyone's harbour.' Ng Kwok-kuen chief engineer The history of Star Ferry and its Central pier hold a profound significance for 59-year-old Ng Kwok-kuen. His father worked for the company as a coxswain for more than 20 years. 'When I was a child, my father would occasionally bring me on the Star Ferry,' Ng recalls. 'I used to look forward to those trips with him and my love of the Star Ferry grew from those experiences. I knew from a young age I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps and become a member of the team.' Sadly, Ng's father passed away before he could see his son's dream realised. But Ng forged ahead with his plan to work for the company his father had loved. In 1963, aged 17 - when the pier was a mere five years old - he joined the firm. He hasn't looked back, clocking up almost 44 years on the harbour. 'I was a donkeyman - which was basically the job on the bottom rung of the ladder. It was my job to clean, buy food and cook it for the crew. In those days they stayed onboard; slept and ate there. It was my job to wash up after them,' he says. Hard graft paid off and he was eventually promoted to technician. After undergoing training, he joined the mechanics team and is now the company's chief engineer. 'I never really wanted to be one of the sailors,' he says. 'But, that said, one of my favourite things to do is to take a trip on the ferry in my free time. I never get tired of it.' Ng recognises that the importance of the Central pier and its clock reaches beyond the people who work for Star Ferry. The clock in particular, he says, was - and remains - essential to the surrounding community. 'The white-collar workers in the area would listen out for the clock at lunchtime,' he says. 'They'd almost obey its chimes, leaving for lunch at a certain time and returning to work when it signalled the time to do so.' Ng is not convinced time is up for the old pier and he expresses dismay at the suggestion. 'The new pier looks like a museum and journey time for the ferries has been [adversely] affected by the reclamation so far.' Chan Tsu-wang chief coxswain 'Mooring has become more difficult,' says Chan Tsu-wang, a 51-year-old who has served the company for 22 years. He should know - he began his career with Star Ferry as a sailor, one of the men who raise and lower the gangplank and secure mooring ropes. He talks of Victoria Harbour with a glint in his eye and says one of his favourite aspects of working on the water is the way its appearance changes with the seasons. He is not so fond of the changes wrought by land reclamation, however, and the problems he says it has created with docking vessels. 'I feel very strongly about [the pier] getting knocked down,' he says. 'It's awkward because it is government land and the city does have to modernise and meet the needs of the people in it. But at the same time, isn't it just as important to remember Hong Kong's history?' A former factory worker, Chan says he chanced upon his dream job when he began working for Star Ferry. He was ambitious and sought every promotion possible, working his way up the ladder to hold the position he cherishes today. 'It is competitive because each time a job comes up, a few men go for it. When I applied for a position as assistant coxswain I had to do an exam, get a licence and have an internal assessment. But I got it and loved it - you stay in the bridge room and steer the boat. Even in the roughest weather I don't get seasick,' he says, laughing. But his mood becomes sombre when the subject of the new pier is raised again. 'I feel let down, yet like many others, I just have to accept it.' Wong Yuk-sum chief inspector of piers 'It makes me so upset the pier will be demolished,' says Wong Yuk-sum, 53. 'It's a part of what the Star Ferry represents. In my 27 years working for [Star Ferry] I have seen the same faces. I've seen boys travelling with their mothers and, over the years, I've watched them grow into men. We still wave to each other.' Wong puts on a brave front when discussing his career - he started his tenure with the company like many of the staff, as a cadet learning navigational skills - but it's clear he's emotional about the changes about to take place. 'It's made me incredibly proud to serve the citizens of Hong Kong all this time,' he says. 'It's been interesting - among all the regular commuters and tourists, occasionally you'll spot a politician, pop star or actor among the crowd.' For many years, his responsibilities required him to start work at 6.30am. 'Luckily, because I've risen up the ranks, I usually work the afternoon shift now,' he says. Wong is not surprised members of the public are questioning the decision to demolish the Central pier. He feels it would be better to turn it into a museum dedicated to the ferry company's colourful history. He also believes the relocation of operations will result in a drop in commuter numbers. 'At first, I can foresee a drop in passenger numbers, mainly among the regulars. But I guess, like most things, people will adjust, the new pier will become a hub and the old one may be forgotten. It's a shame such a huge change awaits us, but it's one of those things in life I'll just have to accept.' Li Chiu-tong electrical engineer 'The clock tower at the Central Star Ferry is the only mechanical clock left in Hong Kong,' says Li Chiu-tong, 58. He has worked with the Star Ferry Company for 10 years and, with responsibility for every lightbulb and electrical fixture on the pier, knows the workings of the clock intimately. The 48-year-old timepiece was constructed with tailor-made mechanical parts and requires plenty of attention from its carers, so much so that Li himself has become something of a cog in the machine. Along with three other staff members, he is responsible for its operation; turning the chime on before 8am and off just after its 8pm toll. Every day without fail, the clock is oiled to keep it running smoothly. Star Ferry general manager Johnny Leung Tak-hing says the clock's replacement will be GPS driven, offer better accuracy and have a bell tone that is indistinguishable from that of its predecessor. Experts were called in to see if it was feasible to transfer the clock from its present location to the new pier, but there is insufficient space, says Leung. Although Li is fond of the old structure, he is far from sentimental about outdated mechanics and becomes pragmatic when discussing the clock's final hours. 'It's an older building, so it does encounter more problems ... the new clock will be far easier to maintain,' he says. And as proud as he is to be part of the historic ferry service, Li feels the new pier may not be such a bad thing. 'It will save time crossing the harbour ... but I understand people's reactions to the plans that have been laid down.'