HK Magazine Archive

Ask Mr. Know-It-All: What do you know about Hong Kong’s maritime history?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 July, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:44pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,

What do you know about Hong Kong’s maritime history? – Sea Bee

That’s not a question for 500 words, Sea Bee. But let me tell you about the RMS Queen Elizabeth—a proud icon of UK and Hong Kong history, in its own special way.

For 56 years, RMS Queen Elizabeth held the record of being the world’s largest passenger liner. She was 1,031 feet long and displaced over 83,000 tonnes of water—a very, very big boat indeed.

We're gonna need a bigger boat

Finished in 1938, the Queen Elizabeth made her maiden voyage in 1940, during the World War II. She spent the first six years of her life as a troop ship, ferrying soldiers around the globe. Winston Churchill said that with her sister ship the Queen Mary, she shortened the war by a full year.

After the war the Queen Elizabeth plied the waters between the UK and the United States. But with the advent of commercial air travel, ocean liners went out of style. The ship was retired in 1968 and in 1970 it was sold at auction. The winner? Hong Kong shipping magnate CY Tung.

CY Tung was the founder of the Orient Overseas Line and the father of former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. The “Onassis of the Orient” fiercely believed in the value of education, and he planned to convert the world’s largest ship into a floating university. He was fond of saying that ships could transport more than cargo—they could carry ideas.

CY renamed the ship SS Seawise University (“seawise,” “CY’s”—geddit?) and had the ship moored in the Rambler Channel to be refitted. But tragedy struck on January 9, 1972. A series of fires broke out on the ship, overwhelming the vessel. Tung Chee-hwa was having lunch onboard when the blaze broke out, but escaped unharmed. Inundated with the water used to douse the flames, the ship was left leaning on a bank, half-submerged in the channel.

SS Seawise University burns (Photo: Post Staff Photographer/SCMP)

An inquiry concluded foul play. The fires had broken out at several locations simultaneously, too neatly for an accident. Theories varied: Some thought Tung wanted to collect on the insurance, while others suggested the pro-Kuomintang tycoon was up against the Communist shipworkers’ unions. A culprit was never found.

Time passed and the ship languished, gutted by fire and half-sunk in the harbor. It was gradually dismantled for scrap from 1974 onwards, and finally covered over during the land reclamation for Tsing Yi’s Container Terminal 9. A sad end to such an illustrious a vessel, perhaps. But the wreck’s fame has lived on. It appears in the 1974 Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun”: the ship’s sloping decks host a secret MI6 base.

CY Tung’s dream of a university afloat may not have come to pass with the Queen Elizabeth, but it never died. Instead he bankrolled a succession of other ships, helping to establish the Institute for Shipboard Education. The organization created the “Semester at Sea”—a cruise ship and university which circumnavigates the globe to this day. It docks in Hong Kong still, spreading its ideas across the world—just as CY Tung and his Queen Elizabeth always wanted. 

The final resting place of SS Seawise Univserity (Photo: Barry Loigman)

Mr. Know-It-All answers your questions and quells your urban concerns. Send queries, troubles or problems to [email protected].