Fire, Water, and Power Dynamics: The Fire at Hong Kong’s Jumbo Floating Restaurant in 1971

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This is the tenth post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgensen and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.

The history of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant(珍寶海鮮舫)fire (1971) is connected to the history of Hong Kong’s socio-political dynamics. Unlike fires on the landscape, Jumbo’s fire was a marine fire which broke out on the floating restaurant where it was moored in the South China sea, in the small straight between Hong Kong Island(香港島) and Ap Lei Chau(鴨脷洲). For me, the Jumbo fire is a case study in “collective responsibility.” Instead of blaming one single stakeholder for causing the tragedy, I am interested in how many different stakeholders share responsibility for the disaster. The fire is a neat example of the dynamics between the Hong Kong government and the people in Hong Kong when it came to handling tragedies in the 1970s.

Disaster scholars have long understood how attributing tragedy to the uncontrollable forces of fate and nature has been used as a way of obscuring structural or systematic failures of the institutions. Indeed, in the case of the Jumbo fire both the government and some individuals wanted to define the disaster as a “curse of evil” which absolved everyone of responsibility. In other words, no one was responsible for the fire.

Nevertheless, the Jumbo fire shows how the opposite narrative was also true. Following the disaster, the media assigned blame to the government so that the Jumbo’s management appeared not to be responsible for the “curse of evil.” Apart from the institutions, an examination of the fire shows that “careless” individuals and agencies who did not keep the ignition sources accordingly do bear responsibility for the fire. Both institutional failure and individuals’ reluctance in following fire-precaution policies contributed to the Jumbo’s fire. In the middle ground between competing narratives of blame, the true reasons for the disaster – the complex relations between governments and corporations related to risk reduction in 1970s Hong Kong – remained unexamined.

Front view of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Courtesy of Mr. Albert Mok, 11 September 2011.

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant’s fire

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant has been a world-renowned tourist spot in Hong Kong since its creation. Its luxury design merits attentions from people across the world. However, Jumbo’s luxury settings bely its troubled history. It suffered from a catastrophic marine fire on 30 October 1971, when its construction was nearly completed.1 The fire started among the highly flammable materials on the Jumbo.2 In the end, the blaze trapped about 234 people, causing 34 deaths and 42 injuries.3 The Jumbo Floating Restaurant fire was responsible for a huge portion of total fire losses in Hong Kong in 1971, accounting about one-third of total fire deaths in a year of record-breaking fire losses in the city. In total, statistics of Fire Services shows that Hong Kong suffered $54 million (HKD) financial in losses because of deadly fires in 1971, a total to which the Jumbo fire contributed substantially.4

Marine Fire and Power Dynamics: “collective responsibility”

Responsibilities of the government

The tragedy triggered concerns over the lack of fire preventive measures implemented by the government. The high death toll reflected the weakness of government institutions that had not done enough to prevent deadly marine fire. Especially given the history of similar marine fires in Hong Kong, the Marine Department was blamed for failing to implement comprehensive measures to prevent such disasters.5 When a Liberian tanker was blown up in Junk Bay in 1967, four men the freighter Pacific Endeavour died.6 The incident suggested that the Marine Department might have done more to supervise the storage of flammable materials on ships and floating objects. In addition, Mr. Fong, a police officer who rescued the Jumbo’s injured, claimed that there was a shortage of ambulances when the fire broke out, pointing to negligence on behalf of government-regulated emergency services.7

“Palace-Like” decorations at the Jumbo’s front gate. Courtesy of Mr. Albert Mok, 27 August 2015.

Yet the government had not been entirely inattentive to the danger of fire. The Marine Department had required the Jumbo’s builders to paint its decorations with fire retardant paints so that the risks of catching fire would be limited. However, the Jumbo’s owner and the shipbuilding company responsible for its construction had not followed the Department’s instructions – they had only required the workers to ensure that fiberglass was kept distant from ignition sources.8 As early on the 31 December 1970, the Marine Department stressed the importance of not keeping any flammable goods on the Jumbo’s vessel.9 Again, the Jumbo’s owners had not followed the Department’s instructions. While the Marine Department might be blamed for failing to provide sufficient oversight of the construction of the Jumbo, Jumbo’s management also carried some responsibility for failing to follow official regulations.

Chinese-style decoration. Courtesy of Mr. Albert Mok, 11 September 2011.

“Careless people”

On 31 December 1971, Fire Services commented on the fire toll of 1971. On the one hand, the spokesperson explained that it would be challenging to ascertain the causes of fire. On the other hand, he claimed that the fires that happened in 1971 were mostly caused by “not sufficiently careful people.”10 Who were the careless people in the Jumbo’s fire?

Apart from Jumbo’s managers, Jumbo’s owners exhibited carelessness as well. Not only had they ignored the Marine Department’s warnings on the day before the fire, but they experienced two smaller burns before the 30 October disaster, when fires broke out “on board the vessels” but were quickly extinguished.11  According to Mr. Lo, who took care of the fire-fighting equipment with seven colleagues, there were no fire drills among the workers, even though there were fire alarms on each floor. Although Mr. Lo’s team were trained to use the extinguishers, they were insufficient to deal with the large-scale marine fire.12 Also, the Jumbo’s interior designer claimed that he had been instructed to use flammable materials such as hyprox to decorate the Jumbo.13

Cooridor at the Jumbo’s front gate. Courtesy of Mr. Albert Mok, 11 September 2011.

Mr. Poon, a foreman of the shipbuilding company, claimed that decision to use of flammable materials had been a joint decision made by the Jumbo’s designer and the director of the shipbuilding company, Mr. Wong.14 Mr. Fan, who ran the decorating company, admitted that a lot of flammable chemicals had been stored in the second deck of Jumbo before the fire. Fan argued that he had not been informed by either the shipbuilding or the engineering company that the decorations needed to be painted with fire-resistant paints.15 Ultimately, it was this collection of failures, miscommunications, and decisions that lead to 34 deaths and 43 injuries when the Jumbo Floating Restaurant caught fire on 30 October.

No one is responsible for the fire? Or everyone is responsible?

After the fire, even though government departments updated safety procedures for ship-building industry,16 no legal prosecution was pursued by the government concerning the fire.17 Mr. Lack, the Principal Marine Officer, stressed that the new safety guidelines could not cover all situations as well,18 implying that the new guidelines would only be effective if the ship owners followed them. Hence, the fire exposed the weakness of institutions to prevent disasters. Institutions took a passive role while “careless” individuals and agencies were expected to do their best to prevent deadly fire. In the case of Jumbo, they shirked their responsibilities. Both government and industry was responsible for the tragedy.

Like other disasters, it was very popular for the media and people in the community to assign blame on the government. Jumbo shows how we tend to overestimate the power of institutions in dealing with disasters. The government became a convenient scapegoat: people believed that catastrophic fire would be avoided if the government amended its outdated fire precaution policies. However, regulatory failure does not tell the whole story. The cumulative negligence of individuals under Hong Kong’s 1970s governance was the real reason for the tragedy. But in the aftermath of disaster, the contributing role of the complex relations between governments, corporations, and the state are rarely as compelling as simple narratives of blame.


  1. “Tribunal to probe Jumbo fire,” South China Morning Post, 10 November 1971, 1.
  2. “Jumbo probe ends, full report for Governor’s study,” South China Morning Post, 14 January 1972, 6.
  3. “Warnings ignored, inquiry told,” South China Morning Post, 10 December 1971, 1.
  4. “’71 had worst fire losses,” South China Morning Post, 31 December 1971, 1.
  5. “Lessons to be learnt from the Jumbo Fire: Chinese Press Comment,” South China Morning Post, 6 November 1971, 2.
  6. “Full inquiry needed into Jumbo fire,” South China Morning Post, 1 November 1971, 2.
  7. “Jumbo’s fire system was not ready,” South China Morning Post, 14 December 1971, 10.
  8. “Foreman admits objection to fibre-glass,” South China Morning Post, 16 December 1971, 8.
  9. “Jumbo plan approved with modifications,” South China Morning Post, 8 January 1972, 5.
  10. “71 had worst fire losses,” 1.
  11. “Warnings ignored, inquiry told,” South China Morning Post, 10 December 1971, 1.
  12. “Warning sounded at Jumbo fire,” South China Morning Post, 23 December 1971, 10.
  13. “Inquiry told of inflammable ‘rocks’ in Jumbo,” South China Morning Post, 29 December 1971, 6.
  14. “Foreman admits objection to fibre-glass,” South China Morning Post, 16 December 1971, 8.
  15. “Inflammable goods on Jumbo,” South China Morning Post, 22 December 1971, 8.
  16. “New safety guide for shipbuilders,” South China Morning Post, 28 June 1972, 4.
  17. “No Jumbo prosecution,” South China Morning Post, 27 May 1972, 1.
  18. “New safety guide for shipbuilders,”4.

Feature Image: The boarding gate for visitors who took barges to the Jumbo. Courtesy of Mr. Albert Mok, 11 September 2011.
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Douglas Cheung

Douglas Cheung is an undergraduate majoring in History at the University of Hong Kong. His academic interests lie in the history of modern China, transnational history, psychiatry and sports. He also delivered on-demand talks in 2021 and 2022 Oxford Hong Kong Forum.

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