It is a ritual that begins in the dark each day at 4 a.m., as it has every morning for as long as anyone can remember.
As a soft gray light begins to reveal the darkened neon signs atop the tall white concrete buildings of the crowded skyline, a new day in Hong Kong is heralded by the movement of a few slow, noisy junks, the sound of these sea gypsies echoing over the bay.
Their aging diesel engines belch loudly as their even older wooden hulls push across the still calm waters of Hong Kong Harbor.
Some are towing barges filled with metal containers or fuel oil, and others, empty and in search of their daily cargo loads, move faster, churning up large wakes behind them.
But the dark serenity is also broken by an old Hong Kong tradition, the familiar sight of the 12 green-and-white boats of the Star Ferry as they begin their daily runs between Hong Kong and Kowloon. Barely an hour before the dawn comes slowly over the harbor, you can see them start to move, identified only by single white lights at the top of their radio masts.
Flying the blue-and-white Star Ferry flag from their metal light poles, the double-ended ferries suddenly appear in the early gray dawn and move across the harbor.
The movement of the ferries is the unofficial signal that an official day has begun in Hong Kong. But it is more than a ritual exercise--the ferries provide a necessary service for thousands of people a day.
The boats feature two classes of service. First-class passengers sit upstairs, enclosed by a few dozen glass windows that wrap around each boat.
The fare: 70 Hong Kong cents, roughly 9.5 cents U.S. People like to boast that the Star Ferry offers the cheapest first-class fare in the world.
Savvy residents always seem to choose the lower deck, open-air seats of second-class (the fare is 50 Hong Kong cents). There they can be willingly confronted with a steady breeze and a never-ending parade of fast-moving harbor life that does nothing less than assault your senses.
The dark creosoted wood posts of the ferry buildings, shredded and splintered from thousands of tough encounters with the boats, moan as each ferry slides in.
Rush of Passengers
The main two-inch-thick hemp rope is barely thrown and taut when a loud bell sounds, the upper and lower gangways are dropped and the rush of passengers from the boats begins.
During peak traffic hours as many as eight boats move between Hong Kong and Kowloon at any one time.
It takes only six minutes to travel the less than one nautical mile across the harbor, and the back-and-forth movement of these legendary boats provides the constant rhythm of the harbor, a rhythm that doesn't stop until the ferries do, near midnight.
The same cautionary signs are behind the wheelhouse on each boat: "beware of pickpockets," they warn, or "do not spit," but no one seems to heed them.
For most of the passengers the ride across the harbor on one of the Star boats is one of the more pleasant daily necessities in Hong Kong.
Still, part of the Star Ferry ritual is that no trip is worth it without a crowd. People push onto the boats on the Kowloon side and repeat the process on the Hong Kong side.
Tourists clutch their latest purchases from Nathan Road. Businessmen attempt to speed-read their copies of the South China Morning Post, but their attention is soon directed to the display all around them: ships of every pedigree and size--tankers, freighters, small oilers, navy ships, small, overcrowded sampans--all attempting to negotiate the water in front of them.
And on the ferries the ventilation doors and hatches are kept open, providing a direct view into the sparkling clean engine rooms.
On some late afternoons, with the sun providing the appropriate backlighting, the 39-ton ferries seem to control the water, zigzagging their way across. The boats artfully dodge the frenetic harbor traffic, each vessel seemingly headed in a different direction, producing a constantly changing kaleidoscope, a sort of nautical dance tribute to the mercantile madness that is Hong Kong.
Their wakes crisscross, the small resulting waves quarreling with each other to form a literal watercolor of activity. It is an image that serves to preserve many of the myths and most of the colorful history of this British colony.
Far From Merseyside
From his second-floor office in Kowloon overlooking the harbor, John Carey watches over his fleet. "The spiritual atmosphere is quite good here," he says. "You couldn't ask for a more dynamic place."
Carey is a newcomer to Hong Kong. For 13 years he had been running the bus company in Merseyside, England. His recent move to Hong Kong has been a most agreeable one. "Of the two, there is no comparison," he says, motioning to his visitor. "Just look out the window."