British river steamer Sai On’s burnt out hulk reconversion at Cheoy Lee Shipyard, newspaper article

IDJ has sent the following newspaper article on the reconstruction work being carried out by the Cheoy Lee Shipyard on the British river steamer, the Sai On.

This was necessary as the following brief report details: “A few decades later, Hong Kong saw its most serious shipboard fire incident in the 20th century. In the evening of 4 February 1947, the steamer Sai On was berthed alongside the wharf near Connaught Road Central for her regular voyage to Guangzhou the following morning. As many as 300 passengers boarded the vessel to take advantage of the free overnight accommodation. At about 5 a.m. the following day, the vessel suddenly caught fire. The vessel soon turned into an inferno in which most of the passengers were burnt to death. It was estimated that around 300 passengers perished in the incident, with only a dozen or so being rescued from the burning ship and the harbour.” (1)

HF: I have retyped the original article to improve clarity and searches.

Thanks to SCT for proofreading the retyped version of the original newspaper article.

HF: Neither IDJ or myself have been able to find an image of the Sai On. I would be grateful if someone could send me one.

However IDJ has sent this, undated, image of the resurrected Tai On in its new guise as the Tak Shing:

Tak Shing Image From Phil Kenny


British River Steamer Sai On, China Mail 20th Feb 1950, From IDJ

In the sheltered bay off Ngauchiwan, some 100 skilled artisans are today engaged in a remarkable surgical operation on a fire-gutted hulk, which Hong Kong will remember as the British river steamer Sai On.

By May this year, the Hong Kong-Macao passenger service fleet will have another addition – a sleek craft equipped with modern amenities and up-to-date navigational aids catering both to travelling traders and tourists.

Now berthed alongside the Cheoy Lee Shipyard, Ngauchiwan, which is undertaking this HK$2,000,000 reconversion project, the hulk is undergoing the second phase of the operation, which began late in December last year.

Nearly 10 weeks of painstaking trimming and patching up have shaped the hulk into what would be, according to the blue prints, a luxurious floating establishment.

Such “extravaganza” as a spacious dance floor with cocktail bar, honeymoon suites, a broadcast system throughout the vessel and radio-telephony top of the “features” list.

Special attention

The reconstruction work itself will give special attention to modern sanitary facilities to serve 1,500 passengers on the four-hour trip to Macao.

The vessel will fly the Red Ensign with a British skipper at the helm.

The Sai on hulk was taken to the Cheoy Lee Shipyard just before last Christmas for the reconversion, after most of her superstructure had been denuded of the charred remnants which bore evidence of the tragic conflagration on February 4 1947, when 132 lives were lost.

It was while the hulk was being pruned in mid-1949 that rumours were circulated among the Colony’s shipping community that the Sai On was to be reconverted into what was then described as a floating hotel.

The last few months of last year did not indicate any development that would add credence to the speculation, until the middle of December when the huk was towed to the Cheoy Lee Shipyard to undergo her current “operation.”


Within the first two months the main deck was reconverted into a spacious steerage deck for 1,000 passengers and storage for some 1,000 tons of cargo. The upper deck is gradually taking shape into four honeymoon suites, dance floor flanked by seating accommodation  to be modelled after such deluxe upholsteries fitted on the SS President Wilson, pride of the “APL” trans-Pacific liners, a cocktail bar and first class cabins.

SS President Wilson Courtesy Wikipedia

SS President Wilson Source: Wikipedia

Fire-resistance paint is now douching the woodwork and platings. More exits will be provided for every deck to cope with exigencies in time of fire.

Most of the framework required new materials. The only visible sign of the tragedy is a plate – the boiler casing – which remains at its original position. The bulge, caused by intense heat during the February fire, was flattened and the superfluous part cut off.

Furnishings for the interior will be specially ordered from abroad. Glass bulwark will be an attractive feature of the ballroom. This enables passengers to look out into the sea irrespective of weather condition.

A loudspeaker system serving vantage points aboard will relay official instructions or entertainment during the trip. This is an innovation which a few river vessels have made it a popular feature.

Source: The China Mail 20th February 1950.


  1. Major marine incidents in the first half of the 20th century Marine Dept Hong Kong

This article was first posted on 19th October 2021.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. SS Tak Shing – reconditioned SS Sai On at Cheoy Lee Shipyard



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