Star Ferry

Enough of the circle of my acquaintances have blogged on this topic that I believe I also need to weigh in about the Star Ferry clock tower in Hong Kong.

This blog post may be highly unpopular, but I already know that I am unpopular with some people.  A recent email said: "On the Internet I read you are 'the most hated weblogger'. Sounds good.  I'll be in Hong Kong later this month. If you are not too busy (and in town), I would like to drink a coffee/tea with you."  Indeed, I will meet with this person and it will likely be a most interesting meeting given this frank request.  I will get the opportunity to explain the art of unpopularity.

The idea of this blog post began when my mobile phone rang.  I picked up and a friendly voice said, "Hi, this is XXX.  As you expect, I'm over at the Star Ferry site ..."  Indeed, I can see her and friends through Hong Kong Cable News.  Why does she want to call me up?  After all, I'm known to be aversive to these kinds of demonstrations.  Come to think of it, why is she even a friend of mine?  Anyway, I don't intend to deal with those deeper issues here because we are in fact very good friends with a very good understanding of each other.  Your friends and allies are those people with whom you agree on general principles but you don't have to agree on every specific instance (or else you won't have many true friends in this world).

I only want to tell you about my personal feelings about the Hong Kong Star Ferry issue here.  Star Ferry is the cross-harbor ferry service between Hong Kong's central district area and Kowloon's Tsimshatsui district.  The Hong Kong side of the terminal has recently been relocated, and the old site with the landmark clock tower was therefore slotted for demolition.  There have been some highly visible protests that are covered every night on the television news programs.  Unfortunately, those reports focused on the physically violent aspects and totally ignored the background reasons.

Here is a photo of the clock tower that has been taken down (via Purple Cloud at Flickr):

Anyway, I won't cover the background reasons either.  Instead, I'll tell you about my other reasons for not showing up at the demonstrations with my friends.

I don't even want to deal with this particular clock tower first, because it is easier to deal with the other clock tower in terms of explaining how I feel.  If Star Ferry travels between the Hong Kong central district and Tsim Sha Tsui, then there is in fact another clock tower at Tsim Sha Tsui.  Here is the photo by Maciej Dakowicz:

Now this tower is distinctly out of place.  In the front of this picture, there are the Star Ferry piers and the tower was never a part of them.  In the back of this picture is the modernisitic Hong Kong Cultural Centre.  So what is this standalone clock tower doing here?  Once upon a time, this clock tower was part of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong railroad terminus.  This is the place where one caught the train to go from Hong Kong all the way to Guangzhou.  In time, it was determined that it was economically unproductive to have a railroad terminus right on the harbor front.  So the terminus was demolished to make way for the shopping malls of the Eastern Tsimshatsui district, the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.  However, the landmark clock tower was left in place in a tribute to the collective memory of the people of Hong Kong.

How many Hong Kong residents today even have a clue about the Guangzhou-Hong Kong terminus?  If the majority don't have a clue, then what is the meaning of this clock tower that stands so dissonant from its immediate surroundings (namely, the modernistic Hong Kong Cultural Center).  When I receive out-of-town visitors, I usually take them to this location and I tell them that this is the bizarre way in which Hong Kong retains the collective memory by preserving a totally dissonant artifact that the majority of the residents do not have a clue on.

It is not that I renounce all historical memories.  But my memories of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong train are highly personally.  I remember that I always traveled third-class (and I took the train on a daily basis because I lived on the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus and I took daily Japanese-language lessons at Star House next to the Kowloon Star Ferry pier in the early 1970's).  Why third-class?  Because I can watch the card games that the passengers played on the wooden benches!  It was much less fun with the leather couches in the first-class coaches.  I also remembered that we always had to shut the windows when we entered the Shatin tunnel, because the locomotives were coal-burning engines which emitted fumes and dust particles.  I look at this clock tower today and it leaves me stone cold.  It means nothing to me, except to remind me of the superficiality of paying lip-service tribute to history but without any substance.  I don't need this.  It only upsets me.

If my visitors have time, I'll take them to Stanley and I'll show them Murray House (photo from SkyIsVeryBlue via Flickr).  Murray House is a restored Victoria-era building (1844) that was named after Sir George Murray (1772-1846), a British soldier and politician.  Architectural design was done by Major Aldrich and Lieutenant Collinson of the Royal Engineers, who actually did the construction.  In 1982 it was dismantled to make way for the Bank of China Tower.  The original building was reassembled in Stanley on the opposite side of Hong Kong island as an act of historical preservation.  So I bring my visitors there, showed them the exterior and I lead them inside.  Then I ask them to choose among the various restaurants inside: "What would you prefer for lunch today?  Spanish food?  Thai food?  American burgers and beer? ..."  Personally, I have no memories about Murray House.  When I walk in there today, I am insulted by this commercialized attempt at historical preservation.  This was about setting up a framework in order to rent out the floor space to competing bids for internationally-themed restaurants.  There is nothing at this site that preserves any history, either my personal history or anyone's collective history.  But since I have to bring my guests here, this was a better place for an ironic historical education than just going to the McDonald's at Stanley Mall down the block.

It is in this context that I say that I have no interest about the Hong Kong Star Ferry clock tower.  I don't know what can be done about it.  I don't want to debate anyone over the meaning of preservation, restoration or relocation.   I just don't want this to be another site where I can take my visitors who don't have the time to travel to Stanley, but such that I can take them to the 'preserved' Hong Kong Star Ferry clock tower and show them the exterior view, after which I will take them to the Starbucks inside and ask them if they want latte or cappuccino.

It is not that I don't have memories about Star Ferry.  But my memories are highly personal.  I have always preferred to take the second-class bottom-deck on the ferry.  I like to observe what the staff did with their ropes when the ferry docks.  I remember that it was an adventure trying to time the jump from boat to land when the ferry boat was bouncing up and down rapidly due to fluctuating waves during typhoons.  I was the one who said, "Oh, there is a Number 3 Typhoon Warning signal so we must go and ride on Star Ferry!"  I remember being sloshed unexpectedly by seawater.  I remember the exhilirating feeling of the ferry surging through the rough seas.  I love to watch what happens when the ferry crosses over the wakes made by larger ships.  I remember all the passengers becoming unbalanced due to an unexpected bump upon docking.  I kept a catalogue of the demographic characteristics of the passengers on Star Ferry versus those on Jordan Ferry.  All of these are my cherished and inviolable personal memories.  They have nothing to do with that clock tower whatsoever.  Those memories will persist in my mind.

This loops back to the question about why I am such good friends with protestors.  That is simply because I have my personal sentiments and they respect them.  Conversely, they have their personal sentiments and I respect them.  I will never insist that they must see it my way, nor vice versa.  Get it?  How else will you have a diversified, multicultural and tolerant civic society?  That is why I love those friends dearly.

Presently, there are far too many Star Ferry links for me to post here.  I will only list the several links that I read and motivated me to write this personal reflection.  These Chinese-language links bring up deeper issues (such as the right to claim to represent the will of the "people of Hong Kong," the inevitable intrusion of politicians on any issue that generates media publicity and the difference between blogger/reporter identities).