Aberdeen harbour in Hong Kong Island is called ‘Hong Kong Tsai’ in Cantonese, which means ‘little Hong Kong’. As the oldest fishing village in the area, one suggestion is that it was actually called ‘Hong Kong’ more than two centuries ago and the foreign sailors who landed there thought it was the name for the entire island, later using it for the territory as a whole.
Aberdeen is home today to the 92- hectare Ocean Park (much visited for its marine life, rollercoasters and cable car), and till this week also hosted the Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Both attractions were popular with tourists – from mainland China in particular – before visitor arrivals to the city collapsed in 2019, hit first by territory-wide protests against the government and then poleaxed by Covid-19 travel restrictions.
A government bailout was needed to keep Ocean Park from bankruptcy last year. Formerly the world’s largest floating restaurant, Jumbo has also struggled to stay afloat, both financially and literally.
Jumbo Kingdom, the company that operates the 250-feet vessel and a smaller adjoining boat called Tai Pak, began laying off staff in January 2020. Two months later the restaurant closed until further notice. Its owner then said that the iconic ship would sail away to an unspecified location this month. Before that could happen there was one final indignity to suffer: onlookers were shocked to see that its kitchen barge – attached to a large tugboat – had capsized this month.
Attempts were made to rescue the famous eatery – whose guests have included Queen Elizabeth and Tom Cruise. The restaurant has also featured in Hollywood blockbusters such as the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, as well as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. The Financial Times reports that it had served 30 million diners since it opened in the mid-1970s.
However, outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam made clear last month that the government had no intention of bailing out the Jumbo. The decision stoked local debate, given that her administration had thrown a $900 million lifeline to Ocean Park. Lam had also pledged in her 2020 policy address to reinvigorate the Aberdeen area, with Lau Ming-wai, the chairman of Ocean Park, promising to spare no effort himself in “making Aberdeen great again”. Yet when a proposal was made to give the Jumbo to Ocean Park as a conservation project, it was rejected. The Antiquities Advisory Board also refused to get involved, ruling that ships aren’t eligible for city protection, unlike buildings on land.
In all fairness, the Jumbo’s appeal has faded dramatically in recent years. It was in its prime in the 1980s after the ship was taken over by casino mogul Stanley Ho (Jumbo Kingdom is still controlled by Melco, the listed flagship of Ho’s son Lawrence). At the time thousands of people lived and worked on junks moored in the harbour. Diners at the Jumbo would move amongst them as they came aboard the restaurant by sampan. The inconvenience was part of the attraction as visitors got a taste of the ‘original’ Hong Kong, tucking into fresh seafood.
But as fishing activity diminished in Aberdeen, so did the quality of the catch on offer at the restaurant, which traded less on its culinary excellence than on diner nostalgia.
The Jumbo enjoyed a brief renaissance after 2003, as the Hong Kong government began to allow visa-free entry for mainland Chinese tourists. But compared to tourists from North America, Japan and Europe, the newcomers were pickier about the cuisine on offer (and a little more demanding on prices as well).
Tourist bloggers quickly concluded that the Jumbo, with its ornate exterior, was tailormade for foreign tastes, not Chinese ones.
This week, with hardly any tourists in the city and no visibility on when Hong Kong’s border with the mainland will reopen to larger numbers of visitors, the Jumbo made its final farewell.
On Tuesday locals flocked to Aberdeen one last time to wave it goodbye as tugboats moved the vessel out to sea. Its next destination remains unclear.
The departure of the floating restaurant marks the loss of a famous local landmark. But in truth it was probably more fondly looked on internationally than it was by Hong Kong residents.
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