“Killer whale on its way from England,” ran a headline in the South China Morning Post on January 22, 1979.
“Southeast Asia’s first killer whale in residence […] is expected to arrive next weekend to begin plying the waters of its new home at Ocean Park’s Ocean Theatre,” the story continued, heralding the arrival of an orca who would come to be known as Hoi Wai.
The journey to Hong Kong was anything but smooth for the 11-foot-long, 750-pound marine mammal: on New Year’s Day, heavy surf from a winter storm cracked her tank at a British aquarium. As the water leaked out, Ocean Park supervisor Henry Leung Kwok-wah, who had been in Britain preparing the whale for her journey, scrambled to get the animal to safety, requisitioning an open truck to transport her for eight hours over snow-covered English roads to another marine park.
She finally arrived in Hong Kong on January 28, Lunar New Year, after a 16-hour flight.
Her adjustment to Ocean Park went smoothly and the next change for the four-year-old whale was a new name. The British had “somewhat bravely” dubbed her Suzy Wong, an allusion to author Richard Mason’s classic Hong Kong love story. The moniker was met with “stiff opposition”, the Post reported. A public naming competition was launched by TVB, and Hoi-wei (later written Hoi Wai), meaning “mighty of the ocean”, was selected as the winner.
Hoi Wai would spend 18 years entertaining Ocean Park crowds with ball-balancing tricks and dramatic leaps and dives.
Her story ended in tragedy when she began haemorrhaging on Friday, April 18, 1997, and the 50 specialists, trainers and veterinarians who “battled around the clock” were unable to save her. Hoi Wai died three days later.
“[Cetacean] shows, cancelled since Saturday, will recommence today […] but without their undoubted star,” read the closing line of an April 23, 1997 Post report.