Jumbo Kingdom: The mission to save a sunken icon

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When it comes to the future of floating restaurant Jumbo Kingdom, perhaps the answer to saving the iconic landmark lies in the story of an older vessel that has made its mark in HK history.

Part 1 of this mini-series was written in a time of crisis. Parts of floating restaurant Jumbo Kingdom’s land-based structures had been demolished without public knowledge and a number of its staff had been furloughed. Wong Chuk Hang councillor Kevin Tsui, who spearheaded conservation efforts, believed that Melco was attempting to quietly move towards abandoning the restaurant altogether.

Melco International Development, the overlords of the Kingdom, have not to date made any statements regarding future developments, and so the grand gates of the Jumbo Kingdom remain closed to visitors. In March, barely days after announcing the temporary closure, staff were let go and parts of the Jumbo pier car park in Sham Wan were demolished without public knowledge.

The three standing Jumbo piers in Sham Wan. Photo courtesy of Cyril Ma.

As a direct result of the unprecedented changes, conservation efforts were quickly sparked. An editorial published in April by Pok Fu Lam councillor Paul Zimmerman solicited ideas for how to conserve the barges. Ideas ranged from turning it into a museum, a local tourist hotspot and even a water transport hub.

However, conserving the marine structure is unlikely to be smooth sailing. The Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, which grades and protects historic sites, does not cover anything built after 1970, nor does it cover marine-based structures. 

This would mean that conservation efforts will have to be paid for largely out of pocket by interested parties. Tsui admitted that this would severely deter businesses from taking on the project due to having to shoulder high costs. 

 “We need to think of more approaches for the owner,” said Tsui. “We could work with the government or the local council.”  

A local and international landmark

The first choice for Tsui would be to develop Jumbo as a local landmark that serves the communities in Aberdeen and Wong Chuk Hang. 

“Japan has done a brilliant job of taking small buildings and turning them into international landmarks…We can do the same with Jumbo,” Tsui argued.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board has long wanted to increase foot traffic to Aberdeen and in 2006 launched the ‘Aberdeen Tourism Project’ (ATP). Completed in 2015, the project, which cost just under HK$300 million, saw the building of bronze statues showcasing the lives of Aberdeen’s native Tanka People, and a general facelift for the two promenades that enclose Aberdeen Harbour. However, as Jumbo is a private business, it was not included in the ATP. Nonetheless, Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, the subsidiary of Melco International that operates Jumbo, carried out its own facelifts in 2003 and 2017 which cost $35 million and $500 million respectively. 

Statues of Boat People erected as part of the ATP in Aberdeen. Photo courtesy of Cyril Ma.

During the initial shock of Jumbo’s demise, Tsui contacted Warehouse, a local NGO and youth centre, to see if they could come up with a plan to save the floating site. Since its founding, the youth centre has been housed in the Grade II listed Old Aberdeen Police Station. 

Established in 1995, The Warehouse Teenage Club was founded by the late Professor Frank White of Hong Kong University. By creating a safe space for personal development, Warehouse hoped to counter a lack of purpose that White saw in many teenagers which often led to drugs, alcohol and anti-social behaviour. 

The two-story colonial police station offers spaces for musical performance, art rooms and large open spaces for community events. In months, Warehouse has also operated heritage tours around the district. Warehouse’s experience with historic revitalisation and heritage work was a reason for hope for Jumbo’s plight. 

However, Karis Ip, a spokesperson for Warehouse, told Harbour Times in June that the possibility of taking ownership of the Jumbo Kingdom barges was mentioned, but no concrete plans were ever discussed.

Exterior of Warehouse Teenage Club. Photo courtesy of Chong Fat (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In the same boat, on the same sea

The Jumbo Kingdom is not the only marine structure that has been the subject of conservation plans. 

First deployed in 1953, The Fireboat Alexander Grantham, named for the British Colonial Governor at the time, was the flagship boat of the Fire Services Department. During its 49-year working life, the vessel saw battles against fires now part of Hong Kong’s shared memory – The ‘Seawise University’ fire of 1972 and the fire of the ‘New Orient Princess’ in 1971. 

The Alexander Grantham also has connections to the Jumbo Kingdom, as it fought a massive fire at the restaurant in 1971. 

Two weeks before the grand opening of Jumbo Kingdom, a fire triggered by an electrical spark that set flammable imitation rocks aflame caused the death of 30 workers on board Jumbo and at least four children in nearby junk boats. 

After decommissioning in 2002, the boat, which much like Jumbo, had become a local maritime icon, changed hands from the Fire Services Department to the LCSD. The vessel was then redeveloped into a museum on marine firefighting.  

Now situated within Quarry Bay Park, the preservation project cost around HK$33 million to complete. Images of the Jumbo fire alongside other infamous battles are on display inside the boat. 

The Fireboat Alexander Grantham Exhibition Gallery in Quarry Bay Park. Photo courtesy of Cyril Ma.

Margaret Wong, a spokesperson from the Museum of History says that the fireboat was a unique challenge to its marine nature. 

“Keeping the fireboat afloat in seawater would pose serious long-term preservation problems and necessitate higher maintenance costs,” she explained. 

“It is thus imperative to keep the fireboat on land to safeguard its steel structure from seawater corrosion and possible damages from marine environment.” 

Despite the similarities, developing Jumbo into a museum is not all smooth sailing. Just as the Alexander Grantham has since become a land-based structure, it is likely that Jumbo will have to be towed on land if it is to become a museum. 

The Alexander Grantham, a vessel much smaller than Jumbo, posed significant difficulties for the conservation crew due to its size.

“Its sheer size and weight did pose considerable difficulties in identifying a suitable site,” Wong said, “and a proper means to transport/lift the fireboat to land in an intact manner”.

It was almost a stroke of luck when the current site, a large sea-facing amphitheatre in Quarry Bay Park was found. Finding a site suitable to house the whole Jumbo Kingdom will not be an easy task, and lifting the entire structure by crane as the Alexander Grantham was, is a herculean task. 

Wong pontificated on the possibility of redeveloping the Jumbo into a museum:

“To receive an object as a museum collection, critical assessment of its values has to be made. Factors to be considered and evaluated include but not limited to its uniqueness, historical significance, existing condition, long-term preservation value, and financial implication…To collect an object which is extremely huge in size and involves intensive care and considerable running cost for long term display would require more stringent consideration.”

Despite noble efforts, the COVID-19 plague rages on. With Hong Kong facing its third and most violent wave, restaurants have once again been ordered to close. Whether Jumbo will once again reopen its doors, or whether it will become yet another fallen kingdom is unknown. 

Regardless, Tsui and Zimmerman are adamant that the international landmark should be saved as a symbol of the Southern District’s local character and the international history of the landmark. 

“Even if they close today, we’re hoping the boat can be kept,” Tsui said. 

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