Curse of the Star Ferry pier

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am

The Star Ferry pier at Edinburgh Place appears cursed.

A hunger strike at the pier in Central on April 5, 1966, triggered a five-day riot, the first in the city's modern history.

So Sau-chung, a 27-year-old translator, staged a hunger strike in protest against the transport advisory committee's flagged fare rise. He had said he would continue the strike until he collapsed or the proposed increase was dropped.

Mr So was arrested the next day, prompting thousands of young men to take to the streets of Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok in violent protests. About 430 people were detained and Mr So was charged with causing 'obstruction and disturbance'. He was jailed for two months.

Chinese University political analyst Ma Ngok said the protest was a mix of anti-colonialism and hardship. The colonial government backed down, partially withdrawing the fare rise so that only first-class passengers were charged the extra five cents to cross the harbour.

Forty years later, on December 14, 2006, a gathering marking the pier's 49th birthday erupted into a standoff between protesters and the police, with demonstrators shouting slogans demanding the preservation of the pier and that town planning be democratic.

Protesters climbed the scaffolding around the clock tower and others marched towards the site's entrance but were immediately rounded up by dozens of police officers. It was the third such clash in as many days.

The struggle ultimately failed, as the clock tower was dismantled in the early hours of yesterday morning, but the activists' message was loud and clear.

Like its predecessor in 1966, this Star Ferry protest was not entirely planned but rather an accidental campaign emerging when circumstances teamed up with simmering discontent to erupt into a confrontation.

This artist-led campaign that started in July turned into a social movement involving professional activists seeking to 'undo the injustice' created by development.

It all started calmly. The mood was carnival-like as the public and campaigners bid farewell to the pier on November 11.

About 150,000 flocked to Edinburgh Place on the last day the Star Ferry left the old pier to cross the harbour. Also at the square were a kettle of steaming water signifying 'memories that could not be recaptured', a man in a clock tower suit, singers, chalk drawings on pavements and hundreds of hand-drawn pictures fluttering in the breeze.

Days before the last ride, petitions were hung throughout the building on a green string criss-crossing the ceiling of the concourse. Songs were written, people did paintings and others waxed lyrical about the pier. Conservationists heralded the public participation as a change of culture in a city perceived to always be prepared to sacrifice the environment and heritage sites for economic gain.

They were also pleased to see hundreds of individuals calling for the pier's preservation, saying the government should respect history and leave this heritage site for future generations.

'It was a totally different social atmosphere compared with our previous campaign to save the Star Ferry pier and the Queen's pier,' said Betty Ho Siu-fong, chairwoman of the Conservancy Association.

The association campaigned for the preservation of the two piers, Edinburgh Place and the City Hall in 1999 as the government proposed building a temporary road in Edinburgh Place. The campaign, though difficult, succeeded. In 2003, it sent a petition to the Legislative Council, opposing the government's plan to demolish the two piers. But it fell on deaf ears.

But the artistic-themed protest last month was really begun by five people in July this year.

Patsy Cheng Man-wah, a town planning journalist-turned-magazine director, printed an article about the ferry pier and the clock tower in the July edition of SEE, a magazine advocating sustainable development. Veronica Luk Yin-sheung, a journalist-turned-town planner, is the other director of the magazine.

Cheng invited Yeung Yang, an artist and visiting lecturer at the Polytechnic University's design school, to shoot a video of the clock and record the chimes for her magazine's website.

Ms Yeung and two other artists - Kith Tsang Tak-ping and Joyce Choi Tse-kwan, also of the design school - run a shop called Habitus in Sheung Wan to promote local design that has become something of a hangout for designers. Professor Tsang keeps people posted of latest developments by e-mail and text message.

Reaction to the article was overwhelming; many readers learned about the planned demolition after reading the article. They wrote to the magazine to share their feeling of helplessness.

Cheng, Luk and Ms Yeung then started discussing how to follow up and decided to run a workshop so readers could gather and share their feelings. Again, the reaction was overwhelming. More than 80 people registered, too many for the shop. So they rented a lecture hall at the City Hall for the workshop.

'It is where we first met Ho Loy. I didn't talk to her, but she was very vocal, so I remember her,' said Ms Yeung. Ho, a single mother who runs a free sheet, Lantau Post, staged a marathon sit-in protest at the pier to support Hong Kong migrant Loretta Yau Wai-lam's lone protest in Toronto on the pier's demolition.

Ho was later arrested for criminal damage. Luk and Ms Yeung went to the Waterfront Police Station in Sheung Wan with Wan Chai District Council chairwoman Ada Wong Ying-kay to bail out Ho.

Ms Yeung used to be a journalist in the early 1990s. She then quit to pursue a master's degree in anthropology. She obtained a PhD in cultural studies and started teaching at Polytechnic University.

'We thought the workshop would end our discussion on the Star Ferry pier,' Ms Yeung said, 'But about the same time, the public arts course Kith and Joyce taught at Tsim Sha Tsui's YMCA over the summer was about the end. So the students decided to go to the Star Ferry pier.'

Artists and performers gathered at the pier square every Sunday from the middle of August, using art to tell passers-by the pier was about to go.

'The theme was participatory arts, so every art piece and performance emphasised how to involve the people passing by, such as drawing stars together,' Ms Yeung said.

Another person drawn into the campaign was Anthony Lau, an architect from London who was on holiday in Hong Kong. Upon his return to London, he started searching for an expert who could help get the clock to run and chime after it was taken down.

Mr Lau wanted to show that the Star Ferry Company's argument that the clock should be dismantled, because there were no spare parts for it, was not right. He believed it could be repaired.

He found Melvyn Lee, a director of Thwaites and Reed, the clock-making company that maintains London's Big Ben.

The British company restores clocks all over the world - in Australia, the United States, India and former British colonies that have English clocks. Mr Lee promised to visit Hong Kong and help save the clock.

The Conservancy Association, Society for Protection of the Harbour and the Action Group on Protection of the Harbour joined the campaign as the pier approached its last day.

After the closure of the pier, Ho helped kept the campaign going. Professionals, such as Vincent Ng Wing-shun, vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, also played a role.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Ms Yeung, Luk and three other women were the second group to march into the sealed-off site. They wanted to support three other demonstrators, who entered the site two hours earlier in an attempt to stop workers from demolishing the pier.

'As we were holding each other's hands and entered the site, I asked Veronica: 'Did it ever occur to you that one day you would do this kind of thing? The answer was no. Then I said, 'neither did I'.'

As the event rapidly unfolded that afternoon, veteran social activists including April Fifth Action Group legislator Leung Kwok-hung joined the demonstrations.

Chinese University's Mr Ma said: 'The professional activists who joined the campaign are anti-establishment. They dislike the dominating money-driven development's disregard of culture and history.

'They know how to get the maximum public attention in the shortest time; they see confrontation with the establishment to create a better society as a multi-level social movement instead of confining their fight to universal suffrage only. They take up difficult and unpopular social subjects the politicians don't want to get involved in.'

The clashes, though confined to the pier's square, dominated news headlines and television airtime, becoming the latest tug of war between the pan-democratic camp and the government. Pan-democratic legislators held urgent debates and panel meetings, demanding the government suspend the pier's destruction.

After the tower was finally dismantled yesterday, Ms Yeung refused to see the campaign as either a success or failure.

'For me, it is an achievement,' she said. 'What it has achieved is going to be long lasting. We formed an organic and flexible network. I hope the government has started to learn how to deal with the public from now on and how to face an informed and sophisticated public.'