When tugs towed Jumbo Floating Restaurant out of Hong Kong last week, the owner of the giant vessel sent the public his “best wishes for a brighter future”.
That future now lies at the bottom of the South China Sea.
The 260-foot, three-story eatery capsized and sank while being towed through deep water over the weekend, its owner, Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, said Monday. No one was injured, the organization said.
Jumbo’s loss reverberated across Hong Kong, a Chinese area where the neon-lit behemoth—built in the style of an Imperial palace—had lain in the same harbor for nearly half a century. Generations of Hong Kongers have celebrated weddings and made business deals with Cantonese dishes such as crispy pork belly and wok-fried mud crab. For many people in the former British colony, the restaurant symbolized a period in local history that was more optimistic than the current one.
Jumbo’s demise comes at a time of massive upheaval in Hong Kong, a time that began when anti-government protests rocked the city for months in 2019. That prompted the Chinese government in 2020 to impose a strong national security law on territory that has since eroded what was left of its democratic institutions.
The unrest continued through the pandemic, when border closures and social distancing measures wiped out thousands of mom-and-pop stores and threatened some of the city’s best-known businesses, including the popular Star Ferry.
At a time when Hong Kong’s Star Ferry and other visual icons are under threat, “it seems like the most visible symbols are disappearing one by one,” said Louisa Lim, the author of the book “Indelible City: Dispossession and Insurgency in Hong Kong.” .”
“That, coupled with the massive political changes brought about by national security legislation, leaves Hong Kongers wondering what will be left of their city,” she added.
Opened in 1976 by Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho, Jumbo was for many years part of a complex called Jumbo Kingdom that included a smaller floating restaurant, Tai Pak. The opening of the larger ship was delayed by a fire in 1971 that killed 34 people and injured dozens of others, according to The South China Morning Post.
A number of celebrities have visited Jumbo Kingdom over the years, including the actor Tom Cruise, the businessman Richard Branson and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. Jumbo Floating Restaurant was also featured in the 1974 James Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun” and several local blockbusters.
In ‘Contagion’, a 2011 thriller about a global pandemic, a pivotal scene was shot in the restaurant: Gwyneth Paltrow’s character becomes the first victim of the pandemic by contracting a deadly virus from a chef.
Even as gigantic residential towers sprung up around Jumbo, the bright neon sign and imperial architecture still dominated the skyline around Aberdeen Harbour, on the southwest side of Hong Kong Island. And it was still a place where Hong Kongers went to make memories; Mrs. Lim, the author, wrote on Twitter last week it had been an annual ritual to go there for her family.
By 2020, however, Jumbo had lost millions of dollars and Hong Kong’s pandemic restrictions on restaurants and tourism forced the company to close. Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises said at the time it couldn’t afford to keep up with maintenance and inspection costs, and offered to donate Jumbo to a local theme park for free.
Later that year, Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam said the government would work with the theme park and local nonprofits in “the rebirth of the floating restaurant.” But the plan backfired, and Ms Lam said last month the government would not invest taxpayer money in the restaurant, which had suffered nearly $13 million in losses in nearly a decade.
Jumbo was towed from Hong Kong on June 14. Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises declined to say where it was going at the time, though the company had previously said the boat would be moved out of town for maintenance and storage.
In a statement, the company said Jumbo “started tipping” on Sunday as it passed through the Paracel Islands, a chain of disputed islands in the South China Sea where China, Vietnam and Taiwan are making territorial claims. It said the accident occurred in an area with a water depth of more than 1,000 meters, or 3,280 feet, “making it extremely difficult to perform salvage operations.”
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Stephen Ng, a spokesman for Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, declined to comment on online speculation that the boat may have been sunk for insurance purposes. There was no direct evidence of a crime.
In a statement Monday, the company said it is “now getting more details about the accident from the towing company”. The name of the towing company was not mentioned.
Not everyone liked Jumbo. Ho-fung Hung, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied Hong Kong politics, called it “self-orienting” and said it wasn’t worth getting nostalgic about.
“Overpriced bad food for ignorant tourists seeking uneasy exoticism,” he said wrote on Twitter last week† “Get lost and don’t come back.”
But for some residents, losing Jumbo was part of a pattern in which the things they love about their hometowns have disappeared since the 2019 protests. A few social media users described the sinking this week as a “nail in the coffin” for the city. Others called it a “funeral at sea.”
A popular illustration doing the rounds on social media shows Jumbo sinking to the bottom of the sea as fish swim by.
In the illustration by Ah To — the nom de plume of a political cartoonist who recently immigrated from Hong Kong, citing the “great mental stress” he would suffer if he stayed — two statues stand on the seabed. One shows a blindfolded woman with a dish of justice that is skewed. The other is a woman holding a torch that resembles the Goddess of Democracy, a protest symbol that was removed from a university campus in Hong Kong last year.
Austin Ramzy reporting contributed.