Thursday, November 26, 2015   

Star of the harbour

Eric Cavaliero

Thursday, February 06, 1997

Star of the harbour


WORLD-renowned Hong Kong institution will celebrate its 100th

anniversary next year.

It was in 1898 that the Star Ferry Company was incorporated - although

ferries had been carrying people across the harbour for quite a few

years before that.

In his book, Europe in China: A History of Hong Kong, E J Eitel wrote:

"One instance of Chinese enterprise was the attempt made in July

1873, to run steam ferries between Hong Kong and Kowloon City, though

the movement was stopped at the time through the action of the British

consul in Canton, who represented to the viceroy that the ferry boats


were merely intended to bring customers from Hong Kong to the Kowloon

gambling houses."

Three years before that, in 1870, a man named Grant Smith had brought

a twin-screw wooden-hulled launch from England and set it going across

the harbour at irregular intervals.

But the Star Ferry's history began with Dorabjee Nowrojee, a Parsee

from Bombay, who in the early 1870s worked his way up from a cook's

job to become the owner of a prestigious Hong Kong hotel.

It was a time when most Hong Kong residents used sampans to cross the

harbour. Nowrojee, a generous man, bought Smith's launch to ferry

himself and his friends between Central and Kowloon, according to

historian Austin Coates.

What began as an infrequent service for friends became a popular mode

of transport over the waters. And with demand quickly outgrowing

capacity, Nowrojee purchased a second launch, the forerunner of the

Morning Star - the first "Star" ferry.

One newspaper report of the time criticised the irregular service.

Intervals varied between 40 minutes and an hour, except on Mondays and

Fridays when the vessels were withdrawn for coaling.

There were no Star Ferry piers in those days: the first ferry pier

stood in the middle of Central, by the old Alexandra House.

In 1880, Mr Nowrojee - unquestionably the father of the Star Ferry

service - started the first cross-harbour ferry service using steam

launches. Within 10 years he owned four vessels, named Morning Star,

Evening Star, Rising Star and Guiding Star. Each could carry 100

passengers and together they averaged 147 crossings a day.

In 1898, Nowrojee sold his service to Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf. New

double-ended steel vessels with upper and lower decks were built.

Though the original pier was still at the corner of Pedder Street and

Chater Road, reclamation took place 14 years after they bought the

rights to sail, and the pier was erected about where it is now.

Hong Kong was bustling; across the bay Kowloon was starting to mean

big business and the Star Ferry cashed in on the boom. The first

vessels were built in Hong Kong itself, with engines imported from


A European had to "dress" to ride first class on the upper deck

which early this century cost 15 cents. One cent was charged for

second class on the lower deck.

More ferries were built in the 1920s, and in 1933 the Star Ferry

Company made history by building the first diesel electric passenger

ferry of its kind - the Electric Star.

In her book, Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire, Jan Morris wrote:

"During the general strike of 1925 volunteers kept things going in

hotels and cafes, drove the trams and distributed the mail, while the

Royal Navy took over the Star Ferry, not altogether successfully."

One local newspaper complained that "the navy's spotless uniforms and

trailing impedimenta of silken handkerchiefs and lanyards" were

hardly the gear for it.

Under normal circumstances, Morris said: "The ferries move into their

wharf with a practised ease. Chinese sailors in blue cotton uniforms

deftly handle the ropes, the Chinese helmsman has all the time in the

world to move from one wheelhouse to the other for the return


When the Japanese invaded in 1941, the company had six vessels. The

competing Yaumati Ferry was told to continue, while the Japanese took

the Star Ferry over for their own purposes. The Golden Star and the

Meridian Star were used to transport prisoners of war from Sham Shui

Po to Kai Tak.

In 1943, the Golden Star was bombed and sunk by the Americans in the

Canton River, and the Electric Star was bombed alongside the Hong Kong

ferry pier.

After the war, the ferries were dredged up and returned to service.

One of the most dramatic events in Star Ferry history came in 1966

when the government approved a first class fare increase. The response

on the streets was severe. Casualties in two nights of rioting on

Kowloon streets included one dead and 26 injured, including 10 police.

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