Virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR)
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Shiu Ka-heng’s 3D virtual version of Hong Kong’s Jumbo Floating Restaurant is available on “The Lost Metropolis” website. Photo: The Lost Metropolis

Hong Kong’s Jumbo Floating Restaurant lives on in virtual form, never to sink nor capsize

  • Artificial intelligence student Shiu Ka-heng has created a 3D virtual version of the once magnificent floating palace that anyone can view online
  • Next he is launching a night-time version of the Jumbo Restaurant and will turn his attention to Kowloon City, which is slated for redevelopment
In a parallel universe that exists only online, Hong Kong’s Jumbo Floating Restaurant can live forever in gaudy, faded glory. It will never let in any water (though rusty and fraying at the edges) and will not, as it has in real life, be towed out of Aberdeen Harbour only to capsize and be left to rot in a watery grave.

This 3D, virtual version of the once magnificent floating palace is the idea of 21-year-old University of Edinburgh student Shiu Ka-heng, who started it as a gap-year project when he decided to spend the year at home in Hong Kong.

“I am studying for a bachelor’s degree in artificial intelligence. I was [in Edinburgh] for my first year, and then Covid hit and I ended up doing my second year online from Hong Kong. I didn’t want to do more classes online and so I decided to take a year off and work on a passion project instead,” says Shiu, sitting in his parent’s cafe in Sai Wan Ho. He plans to start his third year in Scotland later this year, after waiting out the last of the country’s pandemic restrictions.

The virtual model of the restaurant, which opened in 1976 and was popular among tourists, can be found at a website titled “The Lost Metropolis”. Follow the simple instructions to navigate up, down and around the entire restaurant to the soothing sound of lapping waves.

University of Edinburgh student Shiu Ka-heng (left). Photo: The Lost Metropolis

The model has a ghostly quality with its backdrop of grey, cloudy sky, the familiarity of Aberdeen having been erased. Only the outside of the building is visible. All the windows, distressingly, look broken. The inside is all splintered, geometric fragments – an artistic representation of memories destroyed, or simply because Shiu didn’t get a chance to go and photograph the interiors before the restaurant was closed off.

For the viewer, moving around the carcass of the restaurant is an intimate experience, a virtual caress that is all the more melancholic given the Jumbo’s undignified demise on June 19.

To mourn the sinking of Hong Kong’s floating restaurant – or not?

“I went with a team armed with cameras and drones at the beginning of the month, just after the kitchen barge caught fire. We hired a sampan and were able to get very close to it. That’s when I realised how dire the situation was and how out of repair it was,” says Shiu, adding that his own memories of being taken to the restaurant as a child are vague.

The photos were fed into a computer program that transformed them into a 3D digital model that can also be viewed with virtual reality goggles.

This is not Shiu’s first attempt to archive a piece of Hong Kong history.

In 2018, he discovered the State Theatre in North Point, that derelict, unloved former performance venue now undergoing a major heritage revamp. Inside, he found a community of shopkeepers, a world that was a complete contrast to modern Hong Kong and “the endless rat race”. He and some like-minded friends went in, took thousands of photos and interviewed many of the shopkeepers, ahead of it being “gentrified” and transformed into something else, he says.

Shiu and his team capture images and conduct interviews with shopkeepers at the State Theatre in North Point. Photo: The Lost Metropolis

In 2020, he visited the Wah Lai Beauty Parlour in Choi Hung, one of the city’s few remaining Shanghainese hair salons, where he took detailed photos and interviewed the two barbers about their lives. This package is also presented on the Lost Metropolis website, with videos of the two men speaking shown in a way that creates a fully immersive experience for the viewer.

The Lost Metropolis is not just a student project to sharpen technical skills and impress future employers, Shiu says.

“I suppose many of my generation share the same attraction towards old shops and spaces scattered around Hong Kong. First and foremost it’s about their historical relevance, how they are living specimens of Hong Kong’s history. But it’s also about our generation’s loss of identity in such a quickly changing world,” he says.

An interview with one of the barbers at Wah Lai Beauty Parlour that can be seen on the “The Lost Metropolis” website. Photo: The Lost Metropolis

These places represent Hong Kong’s heyday of economic boom and of cultural confidence, when its “retro aesthetics” became immortalised through films and would become Hong Kong’s visual identity, he says.

By contrast, today’s architecture in Hong Kong is uninspiring, he finds, and with the future of so many symbols of local heritage on the line – including the Star Ferry – he is urging others to use his website as a platform to preserve memories, images and stories.

“Anyone can use the infrastructure I’ve put in place to convert images into 3D models for free,” he says.

Next, he is launching a night-time version of the Jumbo Restaurant and is going to turn his focus to Kowloon City, an old neighbourhood slated for redevelopment. There is also the massive archive of photos and interviews conducted at the State Theatre has yet to be put on the site, but the young student says he hasn’t the time or money for that right now.

He is inviting donations to keep the site going and to allow for physical exhibitions.

“It’s a huge undertaking. And there’s no funding,” he says. “But working on this project has been a great experience and I want to work at the intersection of art and technology in the future.”