Posted by Mike
You can visit New York City, Boston, London, Paris, or Rome, and not ride the subway, but everyone who has visited Hong Kong has been on their not so rapid water transit system, the Star Ferries. This is because the two most important areas of Hong Kong for visitors and locals alike – Hong Kong Island and Kowloon – are on opposite sides of the harbor and are mainly connected by ferry. I haven’t been on a Star Ferry since 1959, but from recent pictures, it appears that the same ferries are still being used. When I was in the Navy the ship that I was stationed on visited Hong Kong several times in the 18 months that I was aboard it. So I got to see the city back when there was considerable stress between the British Crown Colony and Red China and there was relatively little commercial trafficking between the mainland and the Crown Colony. Nevertheless, even then the city and Kowloon together were a bustling metropolitan center that was equal to any urban center elsewhere. The striking thing that one noticed in coming in from the South China Sea was that it was generally foggy and cool and we began to see Chinese junks as soon as our ship began to weave in and out of the rather jagged islets that marked the passage toward the island. Before long we were surrounded by junks. For an American in the late 50’s it was like being in another world. We would arrive in the harbor and anchor. The activity in the harbor never ceased, with a multitude of junks constantly moving back and forth relaying cargo from the many anchored freighters, and small sampans going to and from Hong Kong to the anchored ships and Kowloon. There was always a variety of larger cargo and military ships, like ours, anchored out from the piers. In 1959 Hong Kong was a center of commercial activity; there were high rise office and apartment buildings both in central Hong Kong and in Kowloon; it was a great city, even then, 50 years ago!
One of my favorite activities when I had free time and could leave the ship was to take the launch to the pier and make my way to the inclined railway up Victoria Peak. You could take the incline to the very top; there were not many tourists or local people up on the Peak back then. There was a narrow one-lane road – more like a paved path – all the way around the peak, used by strollers and an occasional vehicle, and few houses up at that level. Once, I remember having to make way for a Morris Minor that was wending its rather precarious way to home at dusk around the peak. There was no space on either side of the car for pedestrians. The view from the top of Victoria Peak was spectacular. You could see all of the island of Hong Kong, over to Kowloon and off to the Chinese mainland. On the side opposite from the harbor was Aberdeen, a harbor filled with junks and sampans, including a number of floating restaurants that were popular with both locals and tourists.
Once I decided to walk down from the top of the Peak. It was an easy stroll and allowed one to move gradually down through forested areas past sumptuous high-rise apartment buildings and then to the business section of the city. I remember dropping down through the woods and being confronted with a large cathedral, massive in size, but dwarfed by its proximity to the mountainside, which was rising at about a 45 degree angle. Perhaps by accident, whenever we visited the weather was cool, the sun bright, the water a spectacular blue-green; the English folk were always playing crochet on manicured turf, or cricket on fields that were so green they looked dyed.
To get from the island of Hong Kong to Kowloon one always took the Star Ferry. It only cost a few cents and was about a ten minute ride. You could ride in either first class, with the moneyed people, or 2nd class, where the less fortunate traveled. I remember riding both. When you were in second class, you were with the poorer Chinese and the goods they were transporting, and you might not find a place to sit or place yourself.
Travel opens us up to new ways of seeing the world, of viewing our own society and culture, and to new possibilities for ourselves. Surprisingly, we can find the same kinds of challenges and discoveries much nearer to home, if we are willing to stray off of our well-worn personal paths. However, I’ll recommend Hong Kong any time. I think I’ve got a token for the Star if you’re planning on going!