For several occasions a year, usually in summer, fiery red skies would blanket Victoria Harbour. People at both sides of the harbour would flock to the waterfront after work to take photos of the beautiful skies. For me, the closest harbourfront lookout is North Point Pier, a public ferry pier situated below the expressway Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island. Built in 1963, North Point Pier connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon City, Hung Hom, and Kwun Tong in Kowloon. Together with the adjacent bus terminal and MTR station, the pier has established North Point as a transportation hub in eastern Hong Kong Island. But for many, North Point Pier is much more than just a transport interchange. It is also a community node where neighbours mingle, a dog park, a fishing spot for retirees, a dining destination, a seafood market, a venue for the controversial fish release ceremonies for Buddhist believers, and most recently, a hotspot for real estate investors. For us, North Point Pier is where we would hop on and off bus 23 to and from work, and have Japanese omurice or Vietnamese pho for lunch at the new Harbour North Shopping Centre (北角匯) below the luxury apartments of “Victoria Harbour” (海璇). Awkwardly, “Victoria Harbour” here is used as the name of the real estate development, the project that pushed up the record square foot rate of North Point to HK$65,846 (US$ 8,400) in 2018.
But North Point Pier was not always about money and luxurious living. Back in my childhood, North Point Pier was also home to North Point Estate (北角邨), a public housing estate comprised of seven 11-storey blocks with a total of 1,956 flats. Completed in 1957, the famous social housing complex was designed by architect Eric Cumine. With its convenient location at city centre, North Point Estate was a highly popular social housing estate back at its heyday. In late 1980’s, I often come to take lessons with Mr. Ip, a dedicated art teacher and traditional Chinese painter. I still remember walking in the open corridors and stairs of the housing complex where sea breeze would come all the way to the unit doors. Many residents would keep their doors open behind the metal gates so that sea breeze could reach their living spaces. Through the gate, I would count on seeing Mr. Ip’s paintings, images of Virgin Mary and photos of Mrs. Ip’s visit to the Vatican on the wall to ensure that I had arrived at the right flat for my art lessons. North Point Estate was cleared in 2002 and demolished in 2003. The land was subsequently sold to a local real estate developer and became what we now know as “Victoria Harbour”.
At midnight 12th of November 2006, Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier (also known as Star Ferry Pier 天星碼頭) Clock Tower played its last chimes of its 48-years service, before being decommissioned and demolished along with the third generation Star Ferry Pier. Manufactured by Dent (London clock maker who was responsible for the clock of the Big Ben), the clock had told the time and chimed every 15 minutes since 1958. Although the timepiece mechanism was eventually preserved, the clock tower was discreetly toppled in early morning on 16th December 2006 amid public outcries and activist protests. Then four months later, just a stone throw from the toppled clock tower, Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) became the next harbourfront icon to fall victim for the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project. Named after Queen Victoria, Queen’s Pier was the main arrival and departure point for all colonial governors since 1925, and the landing spot for British royal visits (Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, and Prince and Princess of Wales in 1989). After their failed attempt to save the Star Ferry Pier, local conservationists reunited at Queen’s Pier to held rallies, hunger strikes and candlelight vigils to fight against the demolition. While winning support from the public and even some celebrities, the activists once again failed to convince the government to consider preservation the colonial pier. Despite their fruitless attempts, the incidents of Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier have significantly raised public awareness on heritage preservation in Hong Kong, and triggered widespread support for later conservation projects such as Central Market, Police Married Quarter (PMQ) and Tai Kwun Police Headquarters.
As a port city, pier structures have always been essentials to Hong Kong. Based on an university study of photos from 1863, there were once 56 piers and jetties between Western District and Causeway Bay in mid 19th century. Excluding the restricted zones, that works out to be 56 piers in 5.5km of shoreline, or roughly a pier every 98m. As port facilities were moved away from the heart of Victoria Harbour and the opening of Cross Harbour Tunnel in 1970’s, pier activities along the north coast of Hong Kong Island have significantly declined, except for the pleasant Star Ferry and the other boat services to the outlying islands. I still remember the excitement as a kid in 1980’s when arriving at the Outlying Islands Ferry Pier (港外線碼頭) boarding a boat for day trips to Lantau or Yamma Island, or rubbing shoulders with foreign tourists taking photos of traditional rickshaws at Star Ferry Pier (天星碼頭), or watching couples taking wedding photos at Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) after tying the knot at the adjacent City Hall. Each pier had its own ambience and scenery. Each pier has become a unique piece of memory. Since the completion of Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project, the old Central piers are all but gone. About 300m north of the former piers, a cluster of ten new piers were established between 1990’s and 2000’s as the new Central Piers. Assigned with Pier No. 7 and 8, the current Star Ferry Pier was erected in Edwardian style mimicking its second generation predecessor from 1910’s. The “fake antique” and “theme park” approach of the architecture have drawn heavy criticism from the public. Between Pier No. 9 and 10, Hong Kong Observation Wheel, a 60m Ferris wheel, was erected in 2014 as a new tourist attraction. Despite being skeptical about the necessity of a new attraction, many do see the Ferris wheel as a delightful focus for the harbourfront, and a welcoming feature upon arriving at the Central Piers by ferry.
Tucked in a small street less than 20m off the busy Des Vouex Road West (德輔道西), Coffee & Laundry, a hybrid cafe/ self laundry shop is hardly noticeable from the main street. At the shop, we specifically picked up a bottle of cold brew coffee with a label designed by local artist Don Mak (麥東記). On the label, the artist illustrates the nearby street intersection of Des Voeux Road West and Wing Lok Street (永樂街), with a tram making a right turn towards Connaught Road West (干諾道西) before reaching the highway overpass. What really interesting about the label was its hidden backside, visible only when the bottle was emptied. The hidden picture depicts the same street intersection based on a 1925 photo, long before the overpass construction and land reclamation that erased the historical waterfront. Beyond the road bend stands a pier structure with a sign that says “Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Company”, a British shipping company that has long dissolved. This was Wing Lok Pier (永樂碼頭), or more commonly known as the Triangular Pier (三角碼頭). Among the dozen or so cargo piers lining along the waterfront between Sheung Wan (上環) and Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), Triangular Pier was one of the largest.
Almost as soon as the British set foot on Hong Kong Island back in 1841, this relatively unknown island was declared a free port, a hub of the British Empire for international trading at the Far East. Their aim was to turn this scarcely populated fishing island into a port city and gateway into China. For the next hundred years or so, Triangular Pier and its adjacent piers had played crucial roles in establishing Hong Kong as an entrepôt between the West and East, and setting the basic economic and logistic infrastructure for the later development of manufacturing, servicing and finance sectors. In the 19th century, Hong Kong was a trading hub for tea, silk, and most important of all, opium. Between 1845-49, just a few years since the founding of the city, Victoria Harbour was already handling three quarters of opium from British India to China. Next came the export of Chinese laborers to Western countries, especially during the gold rushes in United States and Australia. From the Triangular Pier and its adjacent docks, 320,349 Chinese workers departed for their oversea destinations between 1851 and 1872 alone. In the next few decades, more Chinese went through the piers, either as temporary workers with 3-year contracts, or as immigrants who would eventually settle in the West. In the end, over one million Chinese had left their homeland from the piers of Sheung Wan. Triangular Pier also served as the entrepôt between the five global trading networks: China, Southeast Asia, India, Britain/ Europe, and the Americas. In 1899, more than 40% of China’s trade was handled in Hong Kong. Because of the piers’ success, many local and overseas (Chinese and Western) merchants chose to set up their offices in Hong Kong, establishing all kinds of trade related businesses, from the obvious shipping and trading companies, to banks, insurance offices, hotels, retail, ship builders, and the Nam Pak Hongs (南北行), trading companies that served as middle person between China and the outside world, namely United States, Australia and Southeast Asia. Entering the 20th century, Hong Kong was promoted as a tourist destination. Apart from cargo shipping, the Sheung Wan piers also emerged as a popular terminal for passenger steamships serving regional coastal cities, and as a stopover port for ocean liners between Asia and the West. In 1930 alone, 1,509,557 passengers traveled by ship between Hong Kong and the outside world. As air travel gained popularity after WWII, the opening of the Kwai Chung container port in 1972, and further land reclamation works along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, the story of Triangular Pier had officially come to the end.
Despite their vital roles for the city’s development, memories of Triangular Pier and other Sheung Wan/ Sai Ying Pun piers are fading fast in Hong Kong. After series of land reclamations, pedestrians would find no traces of the former piers. The only major pier remains is the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal (港澳碼頭), providing regular turbojets to Macau and ferries to Zhuhai and Shenzhen in China. While ferry services between Macau and Hong Kong has been departing from Sheung Wan since early colonial times, the current terminal at Shun Tak Centre (信德中心) was completed in 1985, beside the former Sheung Wan Gala Point (上環大笪地), the biggest night bazaar in the city before its closure in 1992. Highly popular with locals, Gala Point offered a variety of affordable entertainments and services, including outdoor eateries, street performances, storytelling, fortune telling, puppet shows, kungfu display, etc. Across the street from Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, the majestic North Block of Western Market proudly occupies an entire city block since 1906. Known as the oldest market building in Hong Kong, the four-storey Edwardian-style building is perhaps the only remnant left from the times of Triangular Pier at Sheung Wan waterfront today.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.
In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.
For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.
In 1888, the same year when Peak Tram began operating up the slope of Victoria Peak, “Kowloon Ferry Company” was also established for managing the first regular steamboat services between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Soon, the company expanded to a fleet of four ferries, and was renamed to “Star Ferry Co Ltd” (天星小輪), the name that is still in use today. Named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and topping the list of “Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides” by the Society of American Travel Writers, it is no doubt that Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has been on the radar of international travelers for quite some time. For about HK$4 (US$ 0.50), anyone can enjoy a moment of peace crossing Victoria Harbour. In the past century, as a series of land reclamations have shortened the distance between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, piers in Central and Wanchai have been moved numerous times, and ferry rides across the Harbour have become shorter. No matter how short the ride has become, the star ferry experience still offers some of the most rewarding views of Hong Kong’s skyline. To have a moment of relaxation, we always prefer taking the ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side when time allows. The ride is particular lovely at sunset and night.
In 1888, Indian Parsee businessman Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala established Kowloon Ferry Company and operated the first regular ferry service between Hong Kong and Kowloon, taking bread, cargo and passengers with his steamboat Morning Star. In 1890, three more boats, Evening Star, Guiding Star and Rising Star joined the service. Upon retirement, Mithaiwala sold his ferries and company to another British-Indian businessman Sir Paul Chater’s (遮打), one of the first business mogul who was responsible and involved in establishing many large corporations in Hong Kong, including Hongkong Land (置地), Hongkong Electric (港燈), Dairy Farm (牛奶公司), Kowloon Wharf (九龍倉), etc. In the 20th century, the fleet of Star Ferry continued to grow as different generations of ferry piers were erected in Central, Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui. Today, the Star Ferry has eight boats in total, with an average age of 58 years old. Since the completion of Cross-Harbour Tunnel in 1972 and the Harbour crossing Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in February 1980, Star Ferry is no longer the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong and Kowloon. It does, however, carry a sense of history and collective memory of the bygone era. For both locals and tourists, the ferry also offers arguably the best way to enjoy the skyline of Hong Kong. Taking the MTR or driving through the Cross Harbour Tunnel, one can hardly notice the famous harbour.
After the legendary lost city of Petra and epic desert of Wadi Rum, we finally arrived in Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city right by the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. Serving as an essential port for the Middle East, Aqaba is also popular among tourists, thanks to its regular ferry services to Egypt and the world famous Red Sea coral reefs in the area. Before heading over to the land of pharaohs, we decided to spend a relaxing day in Aqaba.
In the morning, we took a shuttle bus from Crystal Hotel to the Royal Diving Centre. After paying a 10 JD entrance fee, my friend and I, who had never dived before, went for an introductory session. Then we spent the afternoon snorkeling with a disposable underwater camera. We saw some nice corals and a lot of colourful fish. We snorkeled for a few hours and returned to the diving centre. Upon leaving we tried to get the refund of the entrance fee. Their policy was that whoever diving at the centre would not require to pay the admission. The staff hesitated for a while and told us the cashier was closed for the day. We had no choice but to return the next morning. The next morning we returned to the Royal Diving Centre for our refund. The staff tried to avoid us. We expressed our discontent and at last a manager came out with a big smile and gave us the refund. Leaving the diving club behind, our hired taxi took us to the passenger ferry terminal. It took us over an hour to go through the customs and deal with the departure tax. At last we were led to board a shuttle bus that drove onto the ferry along with the passengers.
Once on board, we found the Egyptian custom officer to stamp our passports. The ferry didn’t leave the dock until way over 11:30, over two hours since we got to the terminal. At last, the ferry sailed slowly southwest towards the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia to our east. At around 14:30 we arrived at the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. The hectic scene of Nuweiba was our first impression on Egypt. At the minbus station we met three Australians. The six of us hired a minivan to Dahab, the popular backpacker resort at the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Dahab seemed pretty quiet to us, probably because of the recent terrorist bombing a month ago on April 24th, which claimed 23 lives in total. The town looked very young and causal. At the station we met Alex, a staff from Bishibishi Garden Village, a relatively new hotel in Dahab. We met Jimmy the owner and decided to stay at one of their air conditioned triple rooms. After dinner, we strolled around Dahab, dropped by an internet cafe, and bought another disposable underwater camera for the following day.
While remote Fan Lau (分流) is the westernmost village in Hong Kong, Po Toi Island (蒲台島) is its counterpart at the southernmost point of the territory. From 2000 inhabitants in the 1950’s down to about 10 today, like many rural communities in the city, Po Toi Island has gone through a rapid decline in population in the modern era. The remote island with a population of merely 10 would become lively during weekends when a few boat loads of visitors arrive at the dock. Beautiful granite formations, ancient stone carving, a lone lighthouse, a few simple houses, several fishing boats and nets, and racks of drying seafood and seaweeds, Po Toi Island is a peaceful getaway less than an hour ferry from either Aberdeen (香港仔) or Stanley (赤柱). A day before Chinese New Year in a fine Sunday morning, we decided to take the 8:15 ferry, the only scheduled departure of the day, from Aberdeen to Po Toi.
There are either one to two ferries on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from Aberdeen going to Po Toi Island. On Sunday, there are more Po Toi bound ferries departing from Stanley. For us, we opted for Aberdeen because of the unique scenery of its famous typhoon shelter, the home of Aberdeen Floating Village (香港仔水上人家). There were once over 6000 inhabitants living on the boats in Aberdeen, one of the most significant port in Hong Kong since the 19th century.
Today there are still a number of boat villagers staying, and so as their fleet of fishing boats, seafood stalls, floating restaurants, and the seafood wholesale business, etc. At 7:30am on a Chinese New Year’s Eve, local residents were busy shopping for seafood from the fishermen at Aberdeen Waterfront Promenade. On such an important day of the year, their seafood would be sold out in less than an hour.
Decorations for the Chinese New Year could be seen at piers and boats along the promenade.
Under the soft morning sun, colourful boats of all sizes crisscrossed the waterways among the boats parked between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau Island. The Ap Lei Chau Island sheltered Aberdeen from the wind and waves of the open sea, making Aberdeen Channel one of the best typhoon shelter in Hong Kong.
Despite most fishermen have moved onto apartments in Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau, the scenery of Aberdeen is still dominated the channel and typhoon shelter.
The open waterway in the middle of Aberdeen Channel was like a water highway to us.
Our ferry also passed by one of the famous floating seafood restaurants in Aberdeen.
And we also passed by the Ocean Park, the iconic ocean-themed amusement park and aquarium.
From a distance, we also recognized the beautiful Repulse Bay.
Our ferry finally docked at Po Toi’s pier at Tai Wan (大灣). There weren’t that many visitors around. We only shared the island with a handful of tourists and the remaining Po Toi inhabitants.
Po Toi remains as a remote, sleepy and simple fishing village. From the pier, we walked for a few minutes to reach the main beach in the middle of Tai Wan (大灣). There was a seafood restaurant called Ming Kee, probably the only seafood restaurant on the island.
Dried seafood (fish, squid, and even octopus) were common sights.
There were racks on the main beach Tai Wan (大灣) where villagers dried their fishing nets and other fishing equipment.
Some houses on Po Toi were colourfully painted, presenting a great match to the bright blue sky.
On the other end of Tai Wan (大灣) stood an old Tin Hau Temple, dedicated to the sea goddess of Tin Hau for protecting the fishermen at the sea.
Inside the temple, we saw a number of decorations related to the fishing culture of Po Toi, such as the wooden model of a dragon boat.
Adjacent to the Tin Hau Temple, we followed the metal chain up the granite hill to start our day hike.
On two thirds the way up we could clearly see the magnificent scenery of Tai Wan (大灣) and the public pier below.
Looking south we saw Lighthouse no. 126 and the southern tip of the island.
We leisurely walked down the hill in the direction of the lighthouse.
On our way we passed by some graves facing the sea, quite a scenic resting place for the departed.
Atop another hill we encountered a well known attraction on Po Toi. Known as the Monk Rock, this rock formation resembled a Buddhist monk when viewed from afar.
A few tents were set up near Lighthouse No. 126. Po Toi is a popular spot for camping. Far from the city’s light pollution, those who brave for the night here get a chance to admire and photographing the starry night sky.
We finally reached the No. 126 Lighthouse, a simple white washed structure perched on top of granite rocks, overlooking the southern shore and the vast South China Sea.
Reaching the No. 126 Lighthouse at the southernmost point of Hong Kong overlooking the boundless water in a day of very fine weather was emotional and satisfying.
We then moved on to the real southern tip of the island. The South China Sea looked surprisingly busy with cargo ships.
Heading back towards the pier, we reached another attraction of Po Toi, the interesting rock formation with large vertical stone strips known as the Buddhist Palm.
More graves appeared as we walked closer to the village. Like grey boulders, the tombstones looked quite blended in with the overall natural setting.
There are a number of ancient stone carvings in Hong Kong and its outlying islands. There is a mysterious one on Po Toi, simply known as Po Toi Island Stone Carvings (蒲台島石刻).
Back to the village, we decided to sit down at Ming Kee (明記海鮮酒家), the only seafood restaurant on the island.
We just ordered their set lunch with shrimps, squid, small abalone, sweet and sour pork and stir fry vegetables.
After lunch, we wandered along the beach at Tai Wan (大灣).
Po Toi is the most famous spot in Hong Kong for seaweed and kelp. We could clearly see the seaweed above the water.
There were drying kelp and seaweed allover the tiny village. We couldn’t resist but bought a few packs.
A dog lying beside the rack as if guarding the drying kelp.
Before leaving the island, we sat down at one of the simple snack shops and ordered the kelp and green bean soup (海帶綠豆沙), a sweet delight full of aroma of seaweed and herbs that every visitor should try a bowl.