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Hong Kong's iconic Star Ferry is in jeopardy of closing

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Let's travel now to Hong Kong for a trip on the iconic Star Ferry. Its green and white boats have shuttled passengers across Victoria Harbor for over a century. Now political upheaval and the pandemic have put the ferry's future at risk. Here's NPR's John Ruwitch.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The Star Ferry pulls alongside a pier, and deckhands spring into action. Some pass dock lines as thick as a can of soda to the wharf and wrap them around bollards to steady the football-shaped boat. Another lowers the gangway, and passengers disembark into the sweltering city. Roy Leung, an interior designer, is one of them.

ROY LEUNG: In the morning I take the subway, but I prefer after work I take the ferry.

RUWITCH: I ask him why.

LEUNG: It's chill.

RUWITCH: The Star Ferry is indeed chill, a slow glide across a storied waterway that divides an otherwise fast-paced city. It costs just 40 cents. Its vintage double-decker boats have open windows, worn wooden benches and hearken to a bygone era when Hong Kong was a British colony.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUWITCH: Indeed, things seem to have barely changed since William Holden met Nancy Kwan on board the Star Ferry in the 1960 film "The World Of Suzie Wong."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG")

NANCY KWAN: (As Suzie Wong) You sailor?

WILLIAM HOLDEN: (As Robert Lomax) A sailor. Why?

RUWITCH: What has changed is everything around the ferry. The Tsim Sha Tsui Pier, where Roy Leung got off the boat, is normally bustling. Now it's startlingly quiet. That's because Hong Kong's borders have been effectively closed since the pandemic began. The Star Ferry is reliant on tourism, and that started to drop even earlier, in mid-2019, when the city saw huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests. This spring, the Star Ferry reported a loss of about $9 million since the middle of 2019, raising the specter of bankruptcy and the ferry's possible demise.

JACKY YU: (Speaking Cantonese). I can't imagine it.

RUWITCH: That's Jacky Yu, a pop historian. He collects old photos of Hong Kong. The Star Ferry is in lots of them, a part of the nautical landscape.

YU: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: He says the ferry itself is a symbol of Hong Kong. But even if Hong Kong reopens its borders, that symbol seems likely to face uncertainty. John Carroll is a historian at the University of Hong Kong.

JOHN CARROLL: I do think it will be very difficult for us to get back to where we were in 2019. And my guess is that for many, 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.

RUWITCH: He thinks now might be a good time for the government to revisit its tourism policies and its laissez faire approach to heritage preservation.

CARROLL: Maybe this is the time to step in and do a little bit more.

RUWITCH: Back on board the Star Ferry, we cast off for the seven-minute run back across the harbor to Hong Kong Island. Dariel Domingo is an on-board engineer. He's responsible for maintaining the boat's engine.

DARIEL DOMINGO: This is my working environment. I'm down. I'm down there.

RUWITCH: It's visible through an open door down in the hull. It's about the size of a school bus. Domingo says these vintage engines are pretty reliable, but when the colonial-era craft break, it can be hard to get parts. We step off the boat, and as I'm leaving, I ask him how much longer he thinks these boats and their engines can last.

DOMINGO: Hopefully another 40, 50 years. That's what the British said. All my stuff will hold for 100 years.

RUWITCH: Perhaps the Star Ferry can hold on too.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.