(Caption: The Jumbo Floating Restaurant started taking on water and sank in the South China Seas. Image above is an artist’s impression)
THE JUMBO FLOATING RESTAURANT sank into the waters of the South China Seas near the Xisha Islands on Saturday, causing an outpouring of affection for the grandiose old dame of Hong Kong’s tourism scene.
Yet almost all the coverage says it was the iconic Hong Kong floating restaurant used in classic Hollywood movies like James Bond and visited by celebrities like Queen Elizabeth II.
None of that is true.
Here’s the real story.
For Hongkongers with long memories, the term “floating restaurant” refers to a wide range of boat-dwelling food outlets, and they still exist. There’s one that cooks food every evening near this writer’s home in Causeway Bay even today.
Contrary to reports, the giant floating restaurant that became an iconic destination in Aberdeen Harbor was not the Jumbo, but the Tai Pak Floating Restaurant, which dominated the scene for decades, from the 1940s. It’s a fascinating though tragic tale.
In the 1940s and 1950s, locals would go to small wooden boats in Aberdeen or Causeway Bay harbors for good cooking, with the Tai Pak boat in Aberdeen being a favorite. Sensing an opportunity, a local businessman named Wong Lo-kat bought that boat in 1952 and grew the business. It was a massive hit. There were soon a dozen substantial floating restaurants in Aberdeen Harbor, and this area was the place to come for an evening meal.
By 1952, the Tai Pak, king of the floating restaurants, was 32 meters long, about the length of two buses. Business was brisk and Wong expanded it in 1960 to become a major dining place in Hong Kong, able to accommodate 800 diners at once. You could have your wedding dinner there.
In historical terms, the Tai Pak was really Hong Kong’s iconic floating restaurant, and that was the boat which inspired the corresponding harbor scenes in movies such as Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). The Tai Pak remained the top dining ship until 1976.
Going out for dinner was a genuinely magical experience. You would never forget approaching at night in a sampan and seeing the outline of a food palace glowing in the blackness of Aberdeen harbour, accompanied by the tempting aroma of fried fish.
In the early 1970s, the owner of the Tai Pak, Wong Lo-kat, decided to build an even more massive floating palace, and work started on the Jumbo Floating Restaurant.
But a catastrophic fire in October 30 1971 killed 34 people and burned the structure to a shell. Wong, shocked and saddened, was unable or unwilling to restart the project. This picture of the fire (below) is featured in the exhibition part of the preserved fire-fighting ship in Quarry Bay.
In stepped Stanley Ho Hung-sun, a man from Macau who had made a fortune running a casino business. He bought up the project and assigned workers to build something really spectacular, which would look like a floating palace for a Ming Dynasty Emperor. This would take five years to build, and was set for a 1976 opening date. It would eventually even have a throne for an emperor.
The James Bond film that features a Hong Kong scene, The Man With the Golden Gun, was released in 1974, two years before the Jumbo was completed, and the main scene in the city is actually set in the Bottoms Up bar, not the Jumbo.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Hong Kong in 1975, and were hosted on the Tai Pak, not the Jumbo. In fact, as Hong Kong people will remember, the two were not even neighbors, being moored at different locations.
(It was only in 1978, when the government started a reclamation project in the main part of Aberdeen harbor, that the Tai Pak and another similar restaurant, the Sea Palace, were tugged to Shum Wan, where the Jumbo was moored.)
The Jumbo, when it finally opened in 1976, was a huge hit – with its spectacular “emperor’s palace” design and dragon motifs, it became a “must visit” spot on every tourist itinerary. With a three-storey design that could seat more than 2000 people, it was hired out for weddings and corporate gatherings too. In 1982, Ho’s company STDM bought the neighboring Sea Palace, and in 1987, the Tai Pak. The three were rebranded as a triptych called the Jumbo Kingdom.
But the market weakened in the 1990s. Locals stopped going, as a business boom meant that there were literally 10,000 restaurants available on shore, so why make a journey over water?
With only tourists visiting, prices went up as the floating restaurants’ accountants struggled to cover their costs. The Jumbo became tourist-focused, with a selection of ancient Chinese costumes which diners would be encouraged to dress up in after eating. (The politically correct idea of “cultural appropriation” hadn’t been dreamed up at that time.)
Many reports say that Stephen Chow’s The God of Cookery was filmed on the Jumbo in 1996, but that was also shot in the Tai Pak Floating Restaurant. The Tai Pak is like the restaurant equivalent of Paul McCartney, doing all the work while its famous partner takes all the credit.
But nothing could stop the boats’ financial problems. The Sea Palace was closed, and towed away to the Philippines in 1999, where it was moored in Manila Bay, before it also closed. Tai Pak also closed, but the Jumbo itself continued for some years. A successful high-end restaurant called Top Deck was a hit for a while, but eventually closed, too, and then the loss of tourists following the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020 caused all visitor-based operations to become untenable.
A MESSAGE FROM FATE
About three weeks ago, the Jumbo’s kitchen, a separate vessel behind the ship, suddenly started taking on water, and fell on its side, although without completely sinking. This appeared to be a warning message from fate that the boats were getting old and were in need of maintenance.
Fast forward to last week, when the Jumbo was towed away (the owning company, the Ho family’s Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, did not say exactly what was planned for it), and then sank in deep waters, with little hope of salvage.
CARRY ON, HONG KONG
Last night, this writer strolled past Causeway Bay typhoon shelter, and the men on the little floating cooking boat there were as busy as ever.
As always, the international journalistic reports about this city range from mildly to wildly inaccurate, but Hong Kong people themselves ignore them and carry on. It’s the right thing to do. The aroma of fried fish floating from the waters was enough to get passers-by salivating.
Hei fai-la! (“Raise your chopsticks.”)
Image at the top is an artist’s impression of the sinking, incorporating part of an image from Subhashish Panigrahi / Wikimedia Commons