Endangered Star Ferry
To satisfy a voracious appetite for developable property and to improve traffic circulation, reclamation schemes have been implemented along Victoria Harbour and other locations in Hong Kong. This development has come at a cost for the local ferry services because it has produced rougher harbor waters and longer crossing distances and crossing times as ferries skirt around reclaimed sites.
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The situation has been exacerbated, somewhat ironically, by municipal projects intended to stimulate waterfront development. This includes the demolition of the former Star Ferry pier in the Central District and replacing it with the new one a few hundred meters away.
Issues of location and convenience are critical in the daily life and behavior of Hong Kongers. Locals are, on average, unlikely to walk more than seven minutes to catch public transport. Thus, moving the pier just a short distance along the shoreline to the periphery of Central District will effectively discourage some locals from using the new terminal.
Instead, it is believed, they will use the MTR at the Central Station located within the core of the district. Consequently, unease has surfaced that only the very poorest of Hong Kongers will maintain their use of the ferry while everyone else opts for the underground crossing.
Estimates project a short-term reduction in passengers of 7 to 13 percent and a long-term loss of 30 percent of the recent 53,000 ferry passengers per day. A continuing decline of the Star Ferry traffic may mean fewer crossings. This may eventually result in the ferry's merely being an object of heritage tourism — like London's two remaining red double-decker buses — instead of a steadfast form of inner-city transport.
New Perspective of the Past
Whereas the development of public transit infrastructure in cities is usually seen positively, the Hong Kong Star Ferry pier scheme has met with censure, and not only because the new pier is less inaccessible than its predecessor.
A major point of contention is the new pier's design, executed by the Star Ferry Company. At the request of the Hong Kong government, it was made to resemble Edwardian British architecture, to establish a "historic" building resembling the 1912 terminal.
But, since 1997, Hong Kong has been trying to cast off its past and express its own identity. Members of the public and local architects wonder why the 1957 pier will be demolished and replaced by a historic look-a-like.
Vincent Ng Wing-Shun, vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, compared this action to "a modern person putting on old clothes" and having the appearance but not "the essence and the spirit" of its predecessor. People are questioning why historic preservation was rejected and why the former building's image was copied within a contemporary redevelopment scheme in the center of a progressive city.
This historicism may be explained by the nature of contemporary Hong Kong society; it is one that consumes rather than manufactures. Heritage-inspired buildings like the new Star Ferry pier present "purchased" examples of art rather than ones manufactured from within.
In this sense, the design looks back to its past even though current conservation policies and political debates make it seem superficially incompatible. Hence some architects and members of the public will complain regardless of the location of the pier's site.
This Central redevelopment project involved more than planning and design. It also touched on conservation, preservation, and a ferry system that has experienced environmental, cultural, and demographic change while maintaining its service.
As Hong Kongers have expressed their concerns over the relocated pier, the depth of their feeling for the Star Ferry has become clear. Local history has made them aware of how passenger numbers may fall. Heritage and conservation lobbies have been dismayed by the proposal to demolish an old edifice and to replace it with a pastiche.
Perhaps the pier's architects and planners are fuelled by the prospect of creating an axis across Victoria Harbour by the visual alignment between the lofty Edwardian clock tower of the former Tsim Sha Tsui train terminal and the new pier's clock tower.
But such an alignment is hardly cause for optimism. The Edwardian clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui presently stands as a redundant element in the midst of environmental modernism and purported social advancement. How disappointing it would be if the same fate came to the Star Ferry.
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Dr. Ian Morley is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is author of numerous papers on urbanism and civic design.