How Hong Kong’s Jumbo Floating Restaurant capsized at sea

Questions have been raised after Hong Kong’s iconic Jumbo Floating Restaurant capsized in the South China Sea as it was being towed away from the harbour where it had operated for almost 50 years.

The distinctive three-storey vessel was being moved to an undisclosed shipyard by its parent company, Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises. It had planned to carry out maintenance work at a “lower-cost site”, according to Sky News.

However, “adverse conditions” near the Paracel Islands (also known as the Xisha Islands) caused the restaurant’s main boat to capsize on Saturday and then sink the following day. No crew injuries were reported. 

A  statement from Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises explained that it would be difficult to carry out “salvage works” as Jumbo had sunk in waters more than 1,000 metres deep. The statement added that the company was seeking more information from the towing company – which it did not name – to ascertain what happened. 

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant being towed through the sea

‘Symbolised a more optimistic time’

The restaurant, which was designed to look like a glitzy Chinese imperial palace, was opened in 1976 by Stanley Ho Hung-sun, a casino magnate in Macau. 

Over the years, Jumbo and its sister restaurant, the floating Tai Pak (which is now closed), served more than 30 million customers, according to the Financial Times. One visitor was Queen Elizabeth II in the 1970s, when Hong Kong was still a British colony.

For many people, the vessel – which featured in Jackie Chan’s 1985 movie The Protector and 2011’s Contagion, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow – “symbolised a period of local history more optimistic than the present”, said The New York Times.

Restaurant in financial difficulty 

The almost 80-metre seafood restaurant had closed until further notice and laid off all staff in 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises said Jumbo had become “a financial burden to its shareholders, with millions of Hong Kong dollars spent on its inspection and maintenance even though it was not in operation”, reported The Guardian. 

Since the emergence of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, the restaurant had a “net loss of HK$100m (£10m)”, added the paper. Even before the pandemic, the restaurant had become “less popular”, said CNN, “and had been suffering a deficit since 2013”. 

A lack of maintenance caused a 30-metre kitchen barge connected to the restaurant to sink on 1 June, “triggering calls from a group of lawmakers for the government to do more to help the struggling business”, the South China Morning Post reported at the time. 

FridayEveryday, a culture blog written by a group of Hong Kong residents, said the sinking of the kitchen barge “appeared to be a warning message from fate that the boats were getting old and were in need of maintenance”. 

Despite various calls to preserve the floating venue as part of the city’s heritage, Hong Kong’s government did not provide any public funds to help save it.

‘All relevant approvals’ obtained 

Rumours surrounding Sunday’s sinking have suggested that the incident “might not have been accidental”, according to The Times. 

The paper reports that Lo Kin-hei, a politician who had lobbied the government to save Jumbo, has urged the company to “release more details” about what happened, to put such rumours to bed.

The owners have said that marine engineers were “hired to inspect the floating restaurant before the trip, and ‘all relevant approvals’ had been obtained”, said the BBC.

The New York Times reported that Stephen Ng, a spokesperson for Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, “declined to comment on speculation online that the boat might have been scuttled for insurance purposes”.

But the paper added that “there was no immediate evidence to suggest foul play”.

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