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Hong Kong's Star Ferry faces an uncertain future, as ridership falls and debt climbs


HONG KONG — If you've ever visited Hong Kong, the chances are good that you've been on the Star Ferry. Its green-and-white boats shuttle passengers slowly back and forth across Victoria Harbor, with the city's unmistakable skyline as the backdrop.

One recent afternoon, Roy Leung, an interior designer, stepped off the ferry on the Kowloon side.

"In the morning, I take the subway, but I prefer after work I take the ferry," he says.

Asked why, his reply is simple.

"It's chill."

The Star Ferry is indeed chill — a slow glide across a storied waterway that divides an otherwise fast-paced city. It costs roughly 40 cents each way. Its vintage double-decker boats have open windows, worn wooden benches and are lined on the outside with white life preservers.

It's a throwback, with the service seemingly barely changed since the ferry featured in the opening scene of the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong.

What has changed is everything around the ferry.

The city has boomed. Cross-harbor tunnels and a world-class subway system whittled down the number of commuters that relied on the ferry. Tourists became a key source of revenue.

But political turbulence — culminating in widespread, sometimes-violent, anti-government protests in 2019 — scared off visitors. And the Hong Kong government has kept the border mostly sealed shut since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to worries about the ferry's future.

The Star Ferry's ridership and finances have plummeted since 2019

In past years, the Tsim Sha Tsui pier, where Leung disembarks, was bustling and crowded. These days, in the middle of the week, there are so few people that it feels like a holiday.

Mak Seng has run a newspaper stand at Tsim Sha Tsui for four decades. His parents ran it before him.

"Business has gone down. It's undeniable," he says. "The best years were my parents' generation."

This spring, the Star Ferry reported a loss of about $9 million since the middle of 2019. Ridershiplast year plummeted to an average of 26,240 passengers a day. It said it was having trouble covering salaries and paying down loans, and expects to be in debt for decades to come. The ferry declined NPR's requests for an interview.

That all has raised the specter of something previously unthinkable — bankruptcy, and the ferry's possible demise.

"I can't imagine it," says Jacky Yu, a teacher and pop historian. He collects old photos of Hong Kong, which he posts on a popular Facebook account. The Star Ferry is in lots of them — a part of the nautical landscape.

"The ferry itself is a symbol of Hong Kong. The green and white colors actually represent the relationship between the sky and the sea," he says.

But the future of those green and white boats is uncertain. And some think even when Hong Kong eventually reopens its borders, ridership and tourism may not bounce back.

"I do think it will be very difficult for us to get back to where we were in 2019," says John Carroll, a University of Hong Kong historian. "And my guess is that for many mainland Chinese tourists, the first place they're going to want to go, when they can, is not necessarily going to be Hong Kong."

There's no clear plan in place yet to help the ferry survive

Hong Kong's politics remain in flux, despite a tough national security law that Beijing imposed on the territory in 2020. The city is sharply divided, and a current of anti-mainland sentiment continues to bubble under the surface. The authorities argue that the law has helped restore stability. Critics say it's been used to silence dissent and tighten Beijing's grip.

Beyond tourism, Carroll says Hong Kong authorities should reconsider their hands-off approach to heritage preservation. In the past, nonprofits and charity organizations like the Hong Kong Jockey Club have played a key role in preservation. But the government has not.

"Maybe this is the time to step in and do a little bit more," says Carroll.

One simple option to help the ferry survive might be just to raise its low fare.

"I think a lot of Hong Kong people who grew up here from the roots, they will definitely support it," says Nancy Leung, an occasional rider who works at an investment fund. "Because [the ferry] is very symbolic of Hong Kong."

Others have suggested that a white knight investor could step in. So far, though, none have publicly expressed interest.

Dariel Domingo works on the Star Ferry as an engineer. He spends his days monitoring and maintaining boat engines, which are about the size of a school bus and reek of diesel.

"My friends keep on asking me every day, hey, you should find a new job," he says. They are aware of the company's financial troubles.

But he says he likes the work — and the harbor view that his "office" provides.

As for the engines, they are fun to take care of ("like an old truck, but just bigger") and are reliable — they get overhauled every year. But getting parts can be tricky because they're so old. The oldest boat in the fleet was built in the 1950s.

How much longer does he think they can last?

"Hopefully another 40, 50 years," he says. "That's what the British said. All nice stuff will hold for 100 years."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.