Street performers transform the Star Ferry Pier into a cultural hub

Overlooking the skyline of Victoria Harbor, the Star Ferry Pier at Tsim Sha Tsui attracts hundreds and thousands of visitors everyday. As a result, it has become a hotspot for street performers wishing to showcase their talents or to earn a living.

In the past, these were limited to buskers – local musicians who wanted to promote their own music pages or earn some extra money. But in recent years, the Star Ferry Pier has attracted a large variety of acts from all around the world, transforming it into the likes of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame or San Francisco’s Pier 39.

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A caricature artist at the TST Star Ferry Pier. Photo: Amanda Har
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An acrobatic duo from Argentina at the TST Star Ferry Pier. Photo: Amanda Har

Mr. Chan Pak Kong, who has worked as a newspaper hawker at the Star Ferry Pier for over 20 years, said that there never used to be any foreign performers. “They only started coming about 2 years ago,” he said.

In fact, street performances were not common at the Star Ferry Pier, until locals started busking here 3 years ago, according to Chan. “It used to be very quiet here,” he said. “But ever since they blocked off the road in Mong Kok, local musicians started coming here, because there is no one to regulate them here, and it doesn’t cause a disturbance to residents.”

Sai Yeung Choi Street South, a pedestrian zone in Mong Kok once lined with street performers and buskers, has been shut down on weekdays since 2014, due to excessive noise complaints from local residents and shopkeepers.

Busking became popular in Hong Kong several years ago, as budding musicians began taking to the streets to display their craft. In a 2015 census conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, over 95 per cent of street performers in Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui, Central and other districts were local residents. However, at the Star Ferry Pier, it is common to see a variety of both local and foreign acts, with the majority of performers at the main square being foreigners.

An electric guitarist from Greece, who did not want to be named, has been travelling around Asia for the past four years. “I started in the UK, then I went to Cambodia, Thailand, and now I’m in Hong Kong,” he said.

He is part of a new class of street performers who travel around the world, busking and performing wherever they go to fund their travels. This includes backpackers, who often sell photographs and handicrafts made during their travels.

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A backpacker from Crimea sells photographs and handmade bracelets at the TST Star Ferry Pier. Photo: Amanda Har

The guitarist started off as a music teacher in Athens, but as the Greek economy dwindled, the market for music teachers fell and he began losing students. He then started playing gigs at hotels, and would busk full-time when he was out of work. “I started busking on-and-off 15 years ago. But when I didn’t have a job in hotels, I did it as a main activity,” he said.

However, when he realized he couldn’t earn enough money busking in Greece, he began travelling and playing. “I wanted to play music and see the world, and [busking] is a good way to earn money to travel,” he said.

Li Jiang, a tourist from Mainland China, said she enjoyed the variety of acts she got to see at the Ferry Pier. “In China, you don’t get to see performers from different countries often, so it was interesting to watch,” she said.

In 2015, a ban on Mainland tourists limiting their visits to Hong Kong to “one trip per week” led to a two-year slump in the tourism industry. While tourist arrivals started to pick up last year, Hong Kong struggles with developing new tourist destinations to attract long-stay visitors.

Commerce chief, Edward Yau Tang-wah said that Hong Kong is in need of more cultural and rural attractions to draw tourists who are looking for a “distinctive” experience.

As street performers have transformed the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier into a cultural hub filled with local and foreign talents, this may be exactly what Hong Kong needs to boost its reputation as “Asia’s world city.”