Hong Kong maritime authorities request report after Jumbo Floating Restaurant sinking, reveal attraction was headed for Cambodia

Jumbo Floating Restaurant leaving Hong Kong last week. The vessel capsized in the South China Sea during the weekend.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Hong Kong maritime authorities have requested that the owner of the capsized Jumbo Floating Restaurant submit a report, revealing it had been given the approval to be transported to Cambodia before it sank in the South China Sea.

The Marine Department on Tuesday (June 21) night said it had not been told of the sinking before the company announced it on Monday. Conspiracy theories have swirled that human error was involved in the case.

The department confirmed it had permitted the vessel to leave Hong Kong for Cambodia on June 14, after the owner had appointed surveyors to conduct inspections to ensure it was suitable for the journey. The department said it would not monitor the vessel's status after it had left Hong Kong waters.

Earlier in the day, politicians had pressed the government to investigate the case.

A maritime academic said it was still possible to salvage the wreckage but the operation would cost at least HK$10 million (S$1.7 million).

The vessel had capsized in the South China Sea during the weekend following its departure last week for a new home in an unannounced place, according to its owner Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, a subsidiary of the listed gaming firm Melco International Development.

Jumbo encountered adverse conditions when it passed the Paracel Islands - known to China as the Xisha Islands - in the South China Sea on Saturday afternoon, resulting in water entering the vessel and causing it to tip, the company said on Monday.

Timothy Chui Ting-pong, deputy chairman of the political party Third Side, urged the government to investigate the incident and release more information on the vessel's departure.

"We feel pity about this incident … We call on the government to reveal whether marine officials had already got hold of its destination and the sea routes, and to probe why such a structure with high heritage value would sink into the deep sea," Chui said, adding the party had issued a letter to the effect.

"The government should let us know what marine officials' assessment of its departure was, such as whether the ship was fit to set sail to its destination."

PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Chui said the government should also examine whether enough had been done to save the sinking ship, whose operator announced last month plans to exit Hong Kong because of a lack of funds to keep the structure in good condition. Talks on continuing the struggling business as part of the Ocean Park resort also failed.

While there had been calls for the government to offer financial help to keep the restaurant afloat, at least until a solution over the permanent home for the structure was found, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor ruled it out, saying the government had no plans to invest money in its operation.

"I know that some investors had approached the government offering to invest in the ship. I don't know why the government failed to retain it in Hong Kong," Chui said.

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The incident also sparked concern among Hongkongers, who lamented the loss of the iconic floating restaurant, even as speculation ran rife that human factors were involved.

One netizen said the sinking would serve as "the best deal for the owner" who stood to save millions of dollars in repair and maintenance fees every year, while others suggested "sea burial is the best cost-saving method", and the sinking was a way for the owner to claim insurance for the "negative asset".

A spokeswoman for the Observatory said based on its forecast of the conditions near Paracel Islands on Saturday and Sunday, there were "moderate to fresh southerly winds" with occasionally strong winds, and isolated showers and thunderstorms while sea waves were up to 3 metres high.

The firm said the vessel had sunk 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) under the sea which made it "extremely difficult" to salvage. A spokesman from Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises told the Post he had no information on the financial loss or whether the salvage operation would continue.

Professor Stephen Li Yiu-kwong, of the department of logistics and maritime studies at Polytechnic University, said the vessel was a big structure that would be easily affected by strong winds.

"I believe the owner had assessed its seaworthiness and the weather forecast before allowing it to depart from Hong Kong," he said.

The company maintained that the trip had obtained all relevant approvals, with professional marine engineers having thoroughly inspected Jumbo's hull and installing hoardings to the vessel before its departure last week.

Li said it was still feasible to salvage the wreckage but the cost would exceed HK$10 million and the owner was not obliged under international maritime law to retrieve the ship unless it had caused obstruction at sea.

The owner could have used an open-deck barge to carry the vessel to its destination, which would be safer but more costly, he added.

"Whether to use the open-deck barge was entirely a commercial decision," he said.

Li said those who deliberately caused a ship to sink would face criminal liability.

An insurance agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned whether the restaurant was insured outside Hong Kong waters given the way it was towed out to the high seas, without the use of any semi-submerged barge.

"I can't imagine any insurer covering all risks or its eventual total loss unless the owner pays a massive premium," the agent said. "The owner did not want it to remain in Hong Kong because of the high costs of renewing a licence and insurance policy."

In its heyday, the restaurant played host to celebrities from all over the world. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, also urged Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises to release more details of the incident.

"There are already many conspiracy theories. Some people say the restaurant could not have been towed so far away in a week. Some also doubt if the weather around the Xisha area was that bad," Lo said.

The company announced last month it would move the boat away from Hong Kong waters because it could not afford the cost of maintaining the vessel, with millions of dollars spent annually on inspections, repairs and maintenance to meet licensing and other requirements.

The firm said the restaurant, which cost HK$32 million when it was constructed in the 1970s, was heading to somewhere in Southeast Asia but refused to disclose the exact location.

The floating restaurant had attracted celebrities from all over the world in its heyday, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth and film stars such as Tom Cruise and Chow Yun-fat.

The restaurant also featured in local and overseas films such as the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Jackie Chan's The Protector (1985), Stephen Chow Sing-chi's The God of Cookery (1996), Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) and Infernal Affairs II (2003).

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.