Hong Kong says goodbye to Jumbo Kingdom, the world’s largest floating restaurant

Hong Kong says goodbye to Jumbo Kingdom, the world’s largest floating restaurant

Locals gathered along the waterfront to bid the floating restaurant its final farewell.

The colossal, three-story, approximately 260-foot Jumbo Floating Restaurant was famous for its gigantic green-and-red neon sign that reads “foon ying gwong lam,” Chinese for “welcome.” In its heyday it was part of the largest floating restaurant in the world.

For almost half a century it was the main boat of Jumbo Kingdom, which also included the older and smaller sister restaurant boat Tai Pak (dating from 1952), a fish tank barge, a 130-foot kitchen boat and eight small ferries to serve visitors to transport from two nearby piers.

In recent years, the Jumbo Floating Restaurant was the only one of the group that was operational and open to guests.

“Jumbo Floating Restaurant departed Hong Kong today,” confirmed Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises Limited, the company that owns and operates Jumbo Kingdom, in a statement released after the towing operation was completed.

“A unique icon for residents and tourists alike, the Jumbo Floating Restaurant has stood proudly in Hong Kong Island’s Southern District for 46 years.

“We sincerely thank you all for your love and care. We take this opportunity to send you our best wishes for a brighter future,” the statement said.

memory of an icon

CNN Travel visited the restaurant in 2018 – filming its fishing boat, its main restaurant boat and its beautiful, rarely seen venue, and speaking to some of its longest-serving employees.

It was a very popular neighbor of CNN’s Hong Kong bureau. On a sunny day, Jumbo Kingdom had been a popular spot to be photographed from the office windows.

The restaurant certainly looked run-down compared to its glory days, but still exuded a glamorous old-world charm.

The entrance to the floating restaurant – only accessible via a special branded jumbo boat – was one of the most dramatic restaurant entrances in the world.

Upon arrival, see the lavish imperial-style facade with bas-reliefs covering the entire wall, massive commissioned paintings in the stairwell, and many colorful Chinese-style motifs, including a golden throne in the dining room.

It was covered in neon lights, a local Hong Kong craft that began to disappear as the city modernized.A young Kenny Chan poses at Jumbo in the 1990s.

A young Kenny Chan poses at Jumbo in the 1990s.

Courtesy of Seayou Explorer Travel Limited

“Jumbo was our designated place for dim sum. Jumbo also had greater meaning as my parents and I held our wedding banquets there “Wedding banquet in Jumbo”, says Kenny Chan, Founder of Seayou Explorer Travel Limited.

Chan’s parents were among the fishing village families who lived in Aberdeen’s Typhoon Shelter. His wife also grew up on a boat.

“I can still remember how excited I was as a kid when I had the chance to hop on a sampan and visit Jumbo. The ride wasn’t just a mode of transportation – it made us feel like we were visiting a palace. There is no other place in Hong Kong that can convey the same feeling.”

These fond memories of his childhood in the harborside fishing village of Aberdeen inspired him to found Seayou in 2018. The company offers private charter services as well as a sampan cultural tour called the Aberdeen 1773 Cultural Tour, which previously included a stop at the Jumbo Kingdom on departure.

“Jumbo’s cultural, symbolic and touristic value is significant and cannot be quantified… We understand that maintaining Jumbo can be challenging. We’re only depressed when we see the government jeopardize its own plan [to invigorate the neighborhood] Set in 2020 and her decision not to get involved [in Jumbo’s fate]’ says Chan.

Members of the Chan family attend a wedding banquet at the Jumbo in the 2010s.

Members of the Chan family attend a wedding banquet at the Jumbo in the 2010s.

Courtesy of Seayou Explorer Travel Limited

A floating miracle

In its golden days, the restaurant ship starred in many local and international films, including Enter the Dragon (starring Bruce Lee before Tai Pak), Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, and Stephen Chow’s comedy God of Cookery. ”

It has been a “must see” for celebrities such as Queen Elizabeth II and the late Prince Philip, Jimmy Carter, Chow Yun Fat, Elizabeth Taylor and Tom Cruise.

“A restaurant of this scale on a floating structure is unique in the world. It reflects Hong Kong’s close relationship and history with the sea,” says Charles Lai, architect and founder of Hong Kong Architectural History.

“Some dismissed its architectural significance as it was just a ‘faux’ imperial design, but I disagree – it’s an interesting attempt to transform a floating space into an ancient Chinese palace. If we look at the historical context, it was built at a certain time when this Chinese imperial-style aesthetic wasn’t even being promoted in China (“Old things” should be removed during the Cultural Revolution). So Jumbo Kingdom reflected how Hong Kong Chinese at the time had a greater yearning or passion for these ancient Chinese traditions.”

Jumbo Kingdom_Night View

A view of the restaurant at night, illuminated by its famous neon lights.

Courtesy of Jumbo Kingdom

The end of an era

Of course, its golden age didn’t last.

As the fishing population in Aberdeen Harbor has dwindled, Jumbo Kingdom has become less popular with locals and tourists alike.

The company announced that the restaurant had been in deficit since 2013. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent city lockdown dealt the final blow.

In March 2020, the restaurant’s owners said they had racked up a loss of over HKD100 million (US$13 million) and announced that the restaurant would be closed until further notice.

Several proposals were made to save the historical icon, but the high maintenance costs had deterred potential investors.

The Hong Kong government also seemed unwilling to interfere.

The Antiquities Advisory Board ruled that ships – unlike buildings on land – are not part of the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, meaning Jumbo are ineligible for city protection.

Without a “white knight” savior the city had been waiting for, the group decided to relocate the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, the main boat, to an undisclosed shipyard outside of Hong Kong before its operating license expires this June.

Tai Pak, the smaller and older boat, and the recently capsized kitchen boat are currently still in port. Nothing has been confirmed about the future of these boats.

No matter what happens next, Hong Kong has lost one of the greatest — and brightest — jewels in its crown.

CNN’s Lilit Marcus and Teele Rebane contributed coverage.