By Elaine Dunn | July 2022
Another iconic Hong Kong tourist attraction has met its demise last month.
Designed to resemble a resplendent Chinese imperial palace, the Jumbo Floating Restaurant was opened in 1976 by the Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho at a cost close to US$4 million. In its heyday, celebrities and royalties the likes of David Bowie, Tom Cruise, Richard Branson, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth II were entertained there. It had appeared in movies such as Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” Jackie Chan’s “Contagion,” and “James Bond: The Man with the Golden Gun.” At 45,000 square feet, it could accommodate up to 2,300 diners at the same time and, more than 30 million guests had eaten authentic Cantonese cuisine there.
Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises (ARE), Jumbo’s owners, had announced plans in May to tow it to a “lower cost” site from its mooring of nearly half a century, the Aberdeen typhoon shelter, to the south of Hong Kong Island where maintenance work could be carried out.
Prior to its departure, the vessel was thoroughly inspected by marine engineers and all relevant approvals were obtained. However, the approximately 260-foot, three-story structure “sank/capsized” on June 19 in the South China Sea, off Xisha (aka Paracel) Islands.
The Jumbo was towed out of Aberdeen Harbour June 14 to an undisclosed (by its owners) destination, which, according to documents released by the Marine Department later, turned out to be Cambodia.
Pilot ship at the bow and flotilla of escort tugs, Jumbo Floating Restaurant officially left Aberdeen Harbour around 12:30 p.m., June 14.
First reports indicated that the towing operation “encountered adverse conditions” and the floating restaurant began to take on water, then capsized and sank. “The water depth at the scene is over 1,000 meters, making it extremely difficult to carry out salvage works,” the owners reported. Speculation arose almost immediately whether the financially struggling restaurant actually sank while being towed.
Questions ensued as the HK Marine Department said it only learned of the incident from media reports and had to request an incident report from the company, which may land the company in legal waters as it failed to notify the Marine Department of the sinking incident within 24 hours. When contacted by a journalist from Agence France-Presse, a company spokesperson reiterated the Jumbo had “capsized, not sank,” but would not explain why the company statement had mentioned the depth of the water for salvage work. South China Morning Post encountered the same responses from the company. Adding to this mystery was Jumbo’s kitchen barge ˗ it sank on May 31, two days after the owners announced Jumbo would be towed out of Hong Kong. The sinking of the kitchen barge was attributed to “lack of maintenance.”
According to the Marine Department, the tugboat towing Jumbo had an earlier “incident.” In December 2021, while towing a vessel from Hong Kong to South Korea, the towline snapped and the towed vessel eventually sank.
Jumbo’s PR firm could offer no photos or information on whether Jumbo was still salvageable. International media all initially reported the restaurant had “sunk,” which ARE and its PR firm did not correct them. Its PR firm did not respond to emails for clarification.
HK cable TV reported on June 24 the tugboat company revealed six of Jumbo’s eight buoyancy chambers are still intact, but salvaging is “completely impossible” because of insurance problems. So ARE and its insurance company are arranging for divers to destroy the remaining, still-functioning buoyancy chambers so the Jumbo Restaurant can sink to the bottom of the South China Sea. The tugboat contact further revealed that “going out on the high seas by tugboat was at the request” of Jumbo’s owners.
The Jumbo Kingdom (Jumbo and the smaller Tai Pak) had been closed and all its staff laid off since March 2020 because of the pandemic. It never reopened. Its tow-away date was conveniently scheduled slightly ahead of its license expiration date in June. And, according to its operator, it had not been profitable since 2013. In fact, losses exceeding US$13 million had been accumulating. The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Dozens of businesses and organizations, according to someone close to its operations, had been contacted, and declined, to take over. At one point, its owners were said to have offered to donate it to Ocean Park, a local theme park. The park also declined the offer citing failure to find a suitable operator for the facility.
Is the capsizing of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant a string of unfortunate coincidences or is there something more sinister? There are plenty of online comments questioning the situation. Time will tell.
A little bit of nostalgia
Before Jumbo, there was the Tai Pak. There were two Tai Paks, actually. The original one was located in Aberdeen, according to Wikipedia, and the second one, Castle Peak Bay in the New Territories. Supposedly, both operated from the 1950s. An old Hong Kong hand said the Castle Peak Bay one was sold and relocated to Guangxi Province in the 1980s.
The Tai Pak at Castle Peak Bay, 1972
However, the Aberdeen Tai Pak that was moored next to the Jumbo and had been operating as part of the Jumbo Kingdom. As the photos, show, the Castle Peak Bay and Aberdeen one look quite different. Sadly, the Aberdeen one had lost all its luster with recent years of neglect. It is the only Jumbo Kingdom structure left floating upright at present. If any reader knows the story behind the Tai Pak(s), Aberdeen or Castle Peak, please me!
Tai Pak Aberdeen doesn’t look too bad from this angle …
but looks quite dilapidated from this angle
Of course, one can eat all sorts of seafood dishes at the Jumbo. But one eccentric one is the Flamed Drunken Shrimp: prepared tableside, live shrimps are doused with vodka; they begin jumping and dancing around! At that point, they are flambéed and served! Must have unnerved quite a number of lǎowàis (foreigners)!
But before you can eat, you have to get to the floating restaurant, which is in Aberdeen Harbour. So you wait at the fancy pontoon dock and catch a free ferry ride over, compliments of the Jumbo Kingdom.
Dock on right, ferry to its left
Once there, guests can pick out their own seafood from an aquarium-like barge with holding tanks of more than 60 types of fresh seafood.
Fresh shrimp, crab, lobster, geoduck and more varieties of fish than most people know are available for guests to select for their meals
There is also a “gold throne” in the dining room where guests can don a traditional Chinese costume and sit on the “throne” to have a picture taken. For a fee, of course!
Then and now
In 2003, the Jumbo Floating Restaurant underwent major renovations to the tune of US$4.5 million. As the South China Morning Post put it in 2017, “it transformed the restaurants into a complex with shops, bars, specialty food stalls and a fishing village museum.” That was the birth of the Jumbo Kingdom.
Jumbo Kingdom in its glory days, circa 2008. Jumbo on the left, Tai Pak on the right.
Jumbled kingdom in June 2022: capsized kitchen on left, soon-to-sink Jumbo in middle, dilapidated Tai Pak on right. What a sorry sight!
To lose one of its star tourist attractions would be hard for any city. But for Hong Kong, given the tightening grip of Beijing, expats and locals leaving the city in droves, not to mention the pandemic’s impact on its tourism industry and economy, all contributing to a not-so-rosy financial outlook. The way the Jumbo Floating Restaurant met its end may give pause to using the term “going under!”
Tags: HK floating restaurants, Jumbo Floating Restaurant, Jumbo Kingdom, HK history, Tai Pak, Tai Pak Floating Restaurant, Jumbo