All at sea: container handing in Hong Kong

Welcome to Hong Kong: the city without enough land to expand their container port, so otherwise crazy ideas like transferring shipping containers between ships at sea is considered normal.

Mid-stream cargo handling off Lamma Island in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s first container terminal opened in 1972 at Kwai Chung, only two years after the ISO defined the dimensions of the now ubiquitous shipping container. With only 3 berths originally provided at the terminal, increasing cargo traffic saw additional berths constructed in 1976, 1985, 1988 and 1991 to take the Port of Hong Kong to a total capacity of 14 ships.

Despite the expansion, the port was still outpaced by the rapid growth in container traffic, leading to the introduction of “mid-steam operations”. Only seen in Hong Kong, in this cargo handling practice oceangoing container ships are anchored at designated areas of the harbour, allowing cargo lighters with derrick cranes to tie up alongside to load and unload the cargo.

Mid-stream cargo handling off Lamma Island, Hong Kong

The cargo lighters are also used to move containers to and from land, being able to carry up to 48 TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units, the standard measurement of shipping containers) at a time. With around 250 of the vessels in service around Hong Kong, the majority of the fleet is unpowered and depends on tugboats for manoeuvring.

Cargo lighter off the shore of Kung Tong

Moving cargo lighters around near Lamma Island, Hong Kong

The main mid-stream mooring area is located between Lamma Island and the south shore of Hong Kong Island, in relatively calm water. Here dozens of container ships can be seen, surrounded by the even more numerous fleet of lighters and derrick cranes. Altogether in Hong Kong there are 16 such anchorages with a combined area of 3,606 hectares.

Midstream cargo handling off Lamma Island, Hong Kong

The majority of wharves used to unload the lighters are located on the shores of Tsing Yi, with 12 separate locations occupying a total land area of 34.6 hectares and a water frontage of 3,513 metres. With land at a premium, larger areas of handstand are not available for the storage of cargo, so the fast turnaround of containers is essential.

The wharf below is located at Hung Hom on the Kowloon shore of Victoria Harbour, and was once used to tranship containers between ships and the cross-border freight trains on the KCR East Rail Line, until competition from Chinese ports saw the end of the “landbridge” service. Today the containers are moved by road.

Tiny little fishing boat off Hung Hom

With cargo handling statistics available as far back as 1987, it can be seen that the number of containers handled by mid-stream operators increased steadily each year, starting at 780,000 TEU in 1987 and reaching an all-time peak of 4.2 million TEU in 2004. Apart from congestion at the port, this growth had a second driver – cargo handling fees that were 40% to 60% less than those charged by the land based alternative.

When looking at the market share of the containers passing through the Port of Hong Kong, mid-steam operators grew their portion from 22% in 1987 to a peak of 30% in 1992, when 2.4 million TEU were moved by the lighters. While the raw number of containers handled mid-stream increased for the next decade, the land based Kwai Chung Container Terminal had also become more efficient, leading to mid-stream operators dropping back to below 20% of the market by 2004.

Mid-stream cargo unloading of container ship 'Methi Bhum' in Hong Kong.

Since 2004 mid-steam operations have been in decline, with the construction of Terminal 8 and Terminal 9 at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals taking the number of berths from 14 to 24. Now including over 7,500 metres of wharf frontage, they now cover 279 hectares on mostly reclaimed land, as seen on this model at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Model of the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals

Mid-stream operations in Hong Kong continue today, but only handle 5% of the containers passing through the port.

Further reading

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6 Responses to All at sea: container handing in Hong Kong

  1. Alan says:

    Its actually sad to see the closure of railway freight service, which would relieve traffic congestion. (Bare in mind an extra track takes up less space then a road lane but carries more load per hour) Especially in a port like Hong Kong being one of the world’s busiest port and has a long history of a regional freight hub where land is scarce.

  2. Alan says:

    True, not only sea ports, also airport is facing increasing competition from Canton Int. Airport. But at least nowadays, alot of freight still goes thru HK; as far as I know, almost 4 int. shipment I made was transshipped in HK with DHL’s Asia regional hub based in HK. Probably due to tax, customs stuffs and the efficiency (though probably more expensive docking fees apply in HK, quick turn around time means more $$)

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  4. M.J. Smith says:

    Hi Marcus,

    Thank you for this website!

    I would like to meet and chat with the container ship crew. Do you know where they meet up? Is there a social club or pub in HK popular with them?

    I look forward to hearing from you.



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