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Throughout Hong Kong’s history, the city’s advance has been etched into the singular skylines that have grown on both sides of Victoria Harbour. As gleaming towers rose like phoenixes from the memories of historical architecture, there has been one constant – the Star Ferry – which has voyaged between the Kowloon Peninsula’s southern tip to Hong Kong Island for more than 120 years.
Cross-harbour ferry services were launched in the 1880s, by an entrepreneurial Parsee, Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, aboard his steamboat, the Morning Star. However, it only in 1898, when British-Armenian businessman Sir Catchick Paul Chater bought the fleet of four vessels, that the Star Ferry Company was born.
Nine double-ended bottle-green and ivory boats now ply the routes between Central and Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui. The current style of ship first set sail in the 1950s – although the design varied little from Naorojee’s Morning Star – quickly becoming an integral part of not only Hong Kong’s infrastructure, but also the scenery. Today they provide more than just a means of transport for Hong Kong’s inhabitants and visitors, they are also a source of inspiration for the city’s creatives.
The Star Ferry is unique and distinctive.
“The Star Ferry is unique and distinctive,” says Douglas Young, the co-founder of lifestyle and fashion store Goods of Desire (G.O.D.), which celebrates Hong Kong’s visual culture. The fact that the design has remained a constant makes it special, he believes. “It’s rare that anything in Hong Kong does not change in such a long time.”
Max Dautresme, creative director of Hong Kong-based design studio Substance, took his appreciation of the Star Ferry one step further, using the vessels to guide his vision when redesigning Wan Chai hotel The Fleming. “We realised it was an icon that embodied the values we wanted for the hotel; it is cultural, social and efficient,” says Dautresme, for whom the boats were an aesthetic and educational touchpoint; features from the Star Ferry have been woven into The Fleming’s spirit as well as its style.
Both designers cite the ships’ seating as particularly special, especially, according to Young, those on the upper deck that are decorated with a striking star symbol. “There’s nothing more clever than a swing back that allows you to choose which way you face,” says Dautresme, who admires the simplicity behind the way the chairs have been engineered to change direction depending on whether the symmetrical vessel is sailing forward or backward. “Everything is extremely functional, but that practicality has become iconic,” he adds.
The materials are timeless, too. Brass, teak, wax and canvas details have all aged, oxidised and weathered gracefully, despite their proximity to the water and the elements, lending grandeur to the ferries’ enduring heritage and transforming them into classic symbols of the city.
For me, it is cheap, convenient and efficient.
For Young, however, it is not only the boats themselves, but those who work on them that make the journeys’ memorable. “The old sailors themselves are kind of endearing, I like their uniforms,” he says. “When I travel on the Star Ferry, I like to travel on the lower level because I like the smell of diesel and I like to be close to the sea.”
Most locals, like Young, prefer the lower deck of the ferry, leaving the above level to tourists vying for vantages of the harbour. Among them is commuter Francessca Cheung who has made the cross-harbour trip for longer than she cares to admit, preferring to soak up the skyline each morning than take the MTR. “For me, it is cheap, convenient and efficient,” she says. “I live on one of the outlying islands and work in Tsim Sha Tsui, so it makes sense for me to take the Star Ferry. And it makes me feel connected to the city I call home as I get to see it every morning and evening. No matter the weather, I know where I am.”
Because, of course, the service set sail not as a tourist attraction but to take people back and forth across the harbour, a duty that the company will continue to perform for at least the next 100 years, regardless of whether its passengers are on their way to work or to wonder at the awe-inspiring vistas Hong Kong volunteers from the vantage point of Victoria Harbour’s waters.
It offers an amazing, unrivalled viewpoint from which to experience the drama of the harbour.
“I always enjoy taking the Star Ferry, it’s somewhere I take guests who are new to Hong Kong,” says Dautresme. “It offers an amazing, unrivalled viewpoint from which to experience the drama of the harbour. I go for the Symphony of Lights at 8pm and head to the starboard side at the back, which gives you an uninterrupted view of the skyline as the lights come on. People are mesmerised. There’s nothing like it; it’s one of the only harbours where you have such density and urbanism so close to the water,” he adds. “The Star Ferry allows you to absorb that.”
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