Hong Kong’s Maritime Trade, Part VIII: Shipwrecks

Where there are ships, there are shipwrecks. And as one of the world’s leading ports — one prone to typhoons, with an additional history of war and pirate attacks — Hong Kong has more than its fair share of vessels lying at the bottom of the sea.

That’s what engineer Rick Chan discovered when he first started diving with friends more than 25 years ago. “We came across some shipwrecks — fishing vessels — and a wood anchor, but we didn’t know how old,” he says. Eventually, a friend introduced him to Bill Jeffery, an Australian maritime archaeologist living in Hong Kong, who offered to train Chan and his diving friends in nautical archaeology. That led to the creation of the Hong Kong Underwater Heritage Group in 2009.

Since then, the divers have done their part to chart what is lying beneath the surface of Hong Kong’s waters. Off the coast of Basalt Island, they found a granite anchor stock believed to be from the Song Dynasty (960–1279). They discovered a mid-19th century cannon near High Island in Sai Kung. And in one 900-square-metre area nearby, they came across 313 artefacts, mostly porcelain. 

Around the world, shipwrecks and their associated detritus offer insights into the maritime trade that has shaped human history. In 1989, archaeologists discovered the world’s oldest wreck to date, a Greek merchant ship bearing hundreds of pieces of ceramics dating back to 2700 BCE. Closer to home, near Hailing Island in western Guangdong, about 200 kilometres from Hong Kong, a British-Chinese team of explorers came across a 12th century Song Dynasty vessel in 1987. Dubbed Nanhai One after its location in the South China Sea, it was finally excavated in 2007 after years of careful planning.

Hong Kong may have been sparsely settled for most of its history, but its location made it a vital artery for trade along the southern Chinese coast. “Sea traffic between Fujian and Guangdong was sufficiently brisk in the Song Dynasty to justify the establishment of a customs office on the eastern entrance to the harbour in Hong Kong, not far from today’s Tung Lung Chau,” writes Tam Kwong-lin in a history of maritime trade prepared for the Marine Department. Even earlier, during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the waters around Hong Kong were plied by Arab, Indian and Persian merchants on their way to Guangzhou.

The former RMS Queen Elizabeth on fire in 1972. Photo via Wikimedia

“There’s great potential for discovery,” says Jeffery, who is now an associate professor at the University of Guam. “What we’ve found only touches the surface – well, below the surface, but it already goes back a thousand years.” The educational value of shipwrecks is “potentially enormous,” says Stephen Davies, a maritime historian and retired professor at the University of Hong Kong. “In terms of understanding pre-modern maritime trade, its commodities and its vectors, it has occasionally revolutionised what we have understood.” He cites the Belitung shipwreck, the remains of an Arabian dhow that sank in Indonesia around the year 830. Packed with Chinese ceramics, its discovery in 1998 helped scholars understand the extent of China’s global trade during the Tang Dynasty. 

Yet there is little institutional support for underwater archaeology in Hong Kong. “[It is] at best very amateur and quite certainly very, very significantly underfunded,” says Davies. “No university has any sort of properly established and funded underwater archaeology department. No university in [Hong Kong] has any critically well-informed maritime historian. The [Antiquities and Monuments Office] is seriously deficient in any sort of informed maritime knowledge.” 

It’s not just a problem in Hong Kong. “Maritime history is a bit of an academic Cinderella even in places like the UK, which rather fancy themselves as a ‘maritime nation,’” says Davies. He notes there are just two top-tier scholarly journals (“The ones that count in the academic rat race”) dedicated to maritime history, in addition to a couple of journals dedicated to underwater archaeology. 

The former RMS Queen Elizabeth as it sank in 1972. Photo via Wikimedia

There has certainly been no shortage of shipwrecks throughout Hong Kong’s history. In August 1855, 20 pirate junks were sunk by British and American war ships in the Battle of Tai O Bay. The powerful typhoon that hit Hong Kong on September 18, 1906 sank 29 steamships, to say nothing of fishing vessels and other small watercraft. Most recently, on October 1, 2012, the SS Lamma IV sunk off the coast of Hong Kong Island after it collided with a ferry, taking the lives of 39 people in the city’s deadliest maritime accident since 1947.

Stephen Davies has his own list of fascinating shipwrecks in Hong Kong. Among them are the Cicala, a British gunboat bombed and sunk by Japanese forces in the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, and whose wreckage is “still somewhere not far from the entrance to Sok Kwu Wan at the entrance to the East Lamma Channel,” he says. The RMS Queen Elizabeth, a renowned ocean liner later converted to educational use as Seawise University, caught fire under suspicious circumstances and sank near Tsing Yi in 1972. There was also the HMS Tamar, a Royal Navy troopship that gave the British naval headquarters — and current Hong Kong government headquarters — its name. It was scuttled by British forces four days into the Battle of Hong Kong in order to prevent its capture by the invading Japanese military.

Those last two shipwrecks illustrate one of the problems facing underwater exploration in Hong Kong: relentless development. The former Queen Elizabeth, which was owned by shipping magnate Tung Chao-yung, was partly salvaged in order to produce souvenirs, including 5,000 pens made from the ship’s hull; whatever was left is now buried under countless tons of earth used to create Hong Kong’s vast container port. A similar fate met the Tamar, whose remains are now hidden under land reclaimed for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass.

The HMS Tamar moored in Victoria Harbour in 1905. Photo via Wikimedia

That last point is controversial, because the Hong Kong government has never officially acknowledged that the shipwreck found at precisely the spot where the Tamar was sunk was in fact the Tamar. Although a government report completed in 2015 and released in 2017 noted a high likelihood that the wreckage was that of the Tamar, officials have long speculated that it may have been some other ship. (In 2019, the government commissioned a second investigation by researchers from the University of Bournemouth but it has never been released.)

The reasons for this are mysterious. Both Davies and Jeffery speculate that it would be politically unpalatable for Hong Kong’s most significant shipwreck to be that of a colonial-era British warship. “I think it might be politics more than anything,” says Jeffery. Ironically, the name Tamar is still widely used to refer to the old naval base, although most people are unlikely to associate it with the British vessel that once docked there. “My feeling was that [the government] just didn’t want to be involved,” he says. “They wanted to move on.”

A similar apathy reigns when it comes to any other sort of underwater heritage. Without a comprehensive survey, it is impossible to know what lurks beneath the surface of Hong Kong’s many harbours, bays, coves and passages. In the meantime, Rick Chan and his fellow divers are doing what they can to explore. “There is a lot out there waiting for us to find it,” he says.

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