Hong Kong Star Ferry

The 120-year story of Hong Kong's iconic Star Ferry

June 16, 2018

Hana Davis Journalist


Deputy Head
& Illustration


No picture of Hong Kong’s skyline is complete without the green and white ferry in the waters of Victoria Harbour. Each day, more than 50,000 passengers cross the stretch between Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side and the Central or Wan Chai Ferry Piers on Hong Kong Island.

Visitors take the iconic Star Ferry to snap pictures of one of the world’s most photographed waterfronts, and locals use it to avoid the MTR crowds and peak-hour tunnel jams. The Star Ferry, as one of the city’s oldest modes of transport, is deeply entrenched in the collective memory of Hongkongers. This week, City Weekend explores the long history behind the icon of the “fragrant harbour”.

Before the ferry service was established, crossings in Victoria Harbour were conducted on individually-owned sampans – Chinese wooden rowboats. The Star Ferry’s colourful history dates back to 1888 when Parsee merchant Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala founded the Kowloon Ferry Company. In 1898, British businessman Sir Catchick Paul Chater purchased what had grown to become a fleet of four ferries, and the service became known as the Star Ferry Company.

First generation 1871-1904

Second generation 1898-1927

The names of the original four vessels – Morning Star, Evening Star, Rising Star and Guiding Star – were inspired by British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, which has the line: “Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me!” The four boats had a total capacity of 100 passengers. In 1912, the Star Ferry Company stirred controversy by rejecting the Canton coinage, which was, at the time, legally accepted tender alongside the Hong Kong currency.

In 1933, the company made history again by launching the first diesel-electric passenger ferry – the Electric Star. During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, invading forces commandeered two ferries to transport prisoners of war from Sham Shui Po to Kai Tak Airport. Both vessels were sunk in battles against American forces in 1943, but later recovered and fixed after the second world war.

Third generation 1904-1934

Fourth generation since 1956

In 1957, the present-day dual level piers on either side of Victoria Harbour, designed to accommodate 55 million trips per year, were completed. The Star Ferry remained the primary cross-harbour transport until the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972. The Star Ferry Company now employs about 170 people to manage its nine boats, including 130 sailors and engineering staff and 40 coxswains.

The two newest ferries, the Golden Star and the World Star, can transport up to 762 people. While land reclamation on both sides of the harbour has reduced the journey to a mere seven to eight minutes, the crossing was still rated in 1999 by magazine National Geographic Traveler as one of 50 “places of a lifetime”.

Frequency throughout the day

In March this year, the Hong Kong government renewed the company’s franchise rights, allowing it to continue operating for another 15 years. But the company faces the problem of an ageing workforce, with fewer young people interested in joining its ranks. This development has raised concerns about the future of the cultural symbol.

In light of this, the company has taken measures to safeguard itself. This includes the fare rise by an average of 8.9 per cent in 2017. For example, the upper-deck fare for adults on the Central-Tsim Sha Tsui route rose from HK$2.50 to HK$2.70 on weekdays and from HK$3.40 to HK$3.70 on weekends and public holidays.

The operator also recently announced it would begin to offer free Wi-fi in the waiting areas of its three piers, train service staff to be proficient in Mandarin and English, and revamp its propulsion and exhaust systems for lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency.

In the 120 years since its founding, the Star Ferry Company has grown from a handful of single-deck coal-powered boats to a fleet of diesel-electric vessels. All ferries operate with air-conditioned upper decks during Hong Kong’s humid summer. With other waterborne transport across Victoria Harbour now available, some 26 million people still opt to take a ride on the green and white ferries each year.

Whether it will sink or swim with the times, it is undeniable that the Star Ferry will always have a place in the hearts of Hongkongers.

Tsim Sha Tsui to Central visual journey

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