Pier Review: Time to make better use of Hong Kong’s Central ferry piers

Re-imagining Hong Kong’s ferry piers is an investment that will elevate the waterfront to fulfill its visual and economic potential.

Given the implementation of the ambitious Central harbourfront plan, it’s hard to fathom why so many of the city’s Central ferry piers appear so shabby and under-utilised.

There are ten central ferry piers offering thousands of square feet of flexible key waterside space in a key tourist and commuter hub. They accommodate more than 100,000 passengers every day and link Kowloon and the outlying islands to the heart of the city. Some 53,000 use the Star Ferry at Pier 7 every day and more than 36,000 use First Ferry services at Piers 5 and 6.

That’s an attractive level of footfall for any enterprise. Visitor numbers are only forecast to increase as new ferry services come online as the ambitious plan for the Central harbourfront, with its dedicated pier-side corridor, becomes reality.

There’s more to come

Pier 8, home of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, will see a new Central-to-Hung Hom ferry route launch shortly, together with a new water taxi service connecting Kai Tak, Hung Hom, Tsim Sha Tsui, Central Pier No. 8 and the West Kowloon Cultural District. Passengers will be able to hop on and hop off.  

Tenders are being invited for the key development of Site 3, a massive business and leisure complex near IFC that will provide a bridge between the Central ferry pier area and the Central Business District.

All of these innovations will offer greater connectivity to the rest of the city; it’s an exciting time for the central waterfront, but the ten ferry piers seem to have been overlooked. 

We have worked hard to make Pier 8 as inviting and attractive as possible, but most of the neighbouring piers are empty on their upper floors. Many of the rooftops, which offer a magnificent panorama of a world-famous harbour, have been abandoned. The dated designs and drab concrete exteriors could generously be described as utilitarian, and the retail and catering offerings are thin on the ground and often primitive.

In 2012, a HK$600 million proposal was submitted by the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) to provide a facelift and add shopping, leisure and restaurant space to Piers 4, 5 and 6. Their plans for the re-imagined ferry piers looked attractive, but they were rejected by LegCo in June 2013 and not much has happened since. The motivation was to subsidise ferry fares by renting out retail units, but there was not much strategic thought about how best to enhance what is now officially referred to as “a world-class showpiece at the heart of our city which is vibrant, attractive, accessible and symbolic of Hong Kong.”

Horse for courses

One of the key issues is that most of the piers are operated exclusively by the ferry companies. Understandably, the key factor that the Government takes into account in considering the award of a ferry franchise is an operator’s capability to provide a high-quality ferry service. The problem is that efficient ferry operators are not necessarily the right organisations for developing an attractive and vibrant harbourfront leisure space. It’s simply not their job.

As part of the renewed franchise awarded to Star Ferry in 2018, Wharf Holdings is required to upgrade the public and passenger interface at Pier 7, but their plans have not yet been made public. 

It’s a missed opportunity because there is much that could be achieved with very little investment to allow the ferry piers to become an exciting, waterside visitor attraction that offers a balance of retail, leisure, cultural heritage, food and beverage, and entertainment. Instead, some of them risk becoming an anomalous eyesore.

At the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) on Pier 8, we have ambitious and costly plans to expand and develop on the success we have achieved over the last 14 years. There is potential for a Harbour Discovery Centre that would support pioneering environmental projects centred around the harbour, offering STEM education-based visitor attractions. We have proposed the installation of rooftop solar energy plants and would like to examine a renewable energy education hub. With the vast amount of roof space available, the installation of solar panels across the central waterfront would attract global attention and make a positive contribution to the government’s objectives to make a smarter, greener, Hong Kong.

Museum inside, outside

The open air plaza represents an opportunity to bring elements of the museum content outside to the ground level. The HKMM can populate the area outside Pier 8 with lively displays to tell Hong Kong’s unique story of pirates, opium, junks and the China trade to the public. We need more space, but lack an approving body or process to submit our ideas.

A major review of how the Central ferry piers are managed and developed is urgently needed to ensure that they can be re-imagined into a Central harbourfront that transcends functional passenger terminals to become the jewel in the crown of our world-class waterfront.

Printer: R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road, Central, Hong Kong

the author

Initially trained as a museum curator, Richard has held senior cultural management positions in Australia and since late 2010 has lived and worked in Hong Kong. He holds a Masters degree in Political Science and a Post Graduate Diploma in Museum Studies. Career highlights have included Director of Australia’s largest historic site, Port Arthur (Tasmania); Director of the Norfolk Island Museums (South Pacific); Lecturer in Museum Studies at the University of Sydney and Director of Museum & Properties with the National Trust of Australia (NSW). In addition to these responsibilities, for over a decade Richard ran his own museum planning consultancy business. For the last nine years Richard has been guiding the direction and expanding the capabilities of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, an independent museum attracting some 140,000 visitors annually. HKMM is supported by the Hong Kong shipping industry and the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He is engaged internationally with maritime heritage issues as an Executive Member of the International Congress of Maritime Museums.