Oi Polloi

Building Bilge: JUMBO Restaurant

Published: Tue Jul 26 2022

Probably goes without saying, but buildings used to be a lot better than the metal-and-glass monstrosities you see springing up all over the place. Not only did they actually look decent, a fair few of them have interesting histories – be it the madhead architects who designed them or the people who ended up dwelling there.

With this new series, master builder Ellie Foster seeks to shine a light on the buildings with a bit of a story to tell. Take it away Ellie...

The story of JUMBO Floating Restaurant, one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable landmarks, starts with casino monopolist Stanley Ho, who invested some thirty million HK smackeroons into its construction back in 1976.

Between cutting deals and dealing cards, main man Stan proved himself to be a player both on and off the blackjack table, siring more offspring than you could count on three hands and simultaneously keeping four marriages going. He was, put simply, a man with ‘a lot on his plate’, but under his watchful eye, the city’s post-war change in appetite didn’t go unnoticed as land-lubbed dining was edged out by seafront scoffing.

The Island City first fell hook, line and sinker for buoyant banqueting in the late fifties, with Aberdeen Harbour being a coveted lunch spot by day and a bustling hub of glitz ‘n’ glamour by night. JUMBO was a seventy-six-metre-long addition to the small eateries already moored there, and its gargantuan size attracted custom from HK cinema legends Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, just to name a few, as well as a fair few bonafide Hollywood megastars.

Multi-levelled pagodas and the army of gold-winged beasts flanking its perimeter only added to the Imperial Empire-esque opulence of this thing, which were design elements previously reserved for Ming Dynasty bigshots and old-world emperors. Those that managed to put their cameras away long enough to wander inside could be met by more hand-painted murals and intricate friezes than the human brain had the capacity to handle; there was even a throne room for tourists who fancied re-mortgaging their gaff to sit on a big fancy chair.

With a star-studded guest list and a decadent menu featuring dim sum, turnip-flavoured dessert and ‘anti-ageing’ birds nest soup, the restaurant became well-renowned for its unbeatable Cantonese cuisine, but, after decades of first-class service and good grub, by 2003 JUMBO’s once-striking exterior began to teeter on the side of not-so-pap’-worthy, and the restaurant experienced a slight lull in business (especially from clientele conducting big business or those prone to media scrutiny). After some general maintenance, the owners wanted to spice things up with a bit of contemporary pizzazz… what better way than to add a theme park, an award-winning culinary school and an idyllic Chinese tea garden to the proceedings?

 Multi-levelled pagodas and the army of gold-winged beasts flanking its perimeter only added to the Imperial Empire-esque opulence of this thing, which were design elements previously reserved for Ming Dynasty bigshots and old-world emperors.

Presumably the most painstaking job though was returning that technicolour façade to its former glory. Symbolising water, earth, fire, metal and air respectively, it’s been said that each colour presented in equal quantities had the power to bring all the world’s elements into perfect and harmonious balance. I suspect the decorators wish they’d been less sloppy with the finer details when they heard about recent sea-based calamities…

Cue a few more years of stagnation circa 2020, the restaurant had become a ship-shaped money pit, and it was towed by tug boats to a mysterious location around mid-June. As you can probably imagine, an ornamental pontoon that had been the marina’s main pull factor left a monumental void, but concerned onlookers were quickly assured that the diner-liner had just moved to a lower-cost site until further notice. Obviously, for this story’s sake, it would have been a bit more interesting if it was untethered by renegades set-sailing for life in the shallows of a desert island paradise, but we can’t always get what we want, can we?

Either way, unfavourable conditions struck whilst moving over an area of deep water and, despite efforts to ride the storm, the former landmark plummeted a full kilometre into the South China Sea. Luckily, all crew members on board disembarked safely with no lasting damage. Well, except the vessel operator who is still suffering from one of the most serious cases of denial ever recorded, remaining adamant that the illustrious JUMBO, simply, “has not sunk” to this very day.

It’s fair to say that JUMBO’S hapless fate came at a great loss to the mega-city. but when sea levels get to catastrophic levels and there’s no liveable land mass left, JUMBO is in prime position for being the ‘next big thing’: Atlantis-esque feasting. For the time-being though, its longstanding history and stellar reputation remains firmly on dry land.