J.H. Vaughan – An American Shipbuilder in Hong Kong

York Lo: J.H. Vaughan – An American Shipbuilder in Hong Kong


San Pablo from the movie The Sand Pebbles – JH Vaughan’s highest profile creation (Source: Sand Pebbles movie website)

Americans have been involved in the Hong Kong shipbuilding industry since the early days of the colony when two Bostonians – Charles Emery and George Frazar set up their shipyard in Kowloon in 1844. (More on this in another article).

In the 1950s a number of American shipbuilders set up shop in Hong Kong, taking advantage of the low production costs and skilled labor to meet strong demand in the US and Asia Pacific market. While the Newtons of American Marine, (see below in Related Indhhk articles), and the Drummond brothers of Transocean (to be covered) focused on the smaller size pleasure craft segment of the market in the US, a Virginia native by the name of James Harold Vaughan (refer to as “J.H. Vaughan” hereafter) through his Pacific Islands Shipbuilding (太平島造船廠) and later Vaughan & Yung Engineering focused on building larger commercial vessels (up to 350 feet long and over 1,000 gross tonnage) for a variety of clients in the Asia Pacific region ranging from the featured gunboat in a major Hollywood movie shot in Hong Kong to a large scale floating cabaret/restaurant for a US chain of tiki bars in Victoria Harbor to tugboats and barges for governments of small island nations.

An article in the Trade Bulletin published by the HK Department of Industry and Commerce in 1958 provides the early background of J.H. Vaughan – “Born in Petersburg, Virginia, Mr. Vaughan graduated from the Academy of Aeronautics at LaGuardia Field, New York after passing through High School and Whites School of Business Administration (note: unclear what specific school is being referred to here as there is no school that went by that name).

In 1940, he entered the shipbuilding industry and not long after that was able to satisfy his ambition to travel by joining a group of engineers bound for a project in China. While en route, the Pacific War started and the ship was diverted to Australia where Mr. Vaughan joined the U.S Forces spending the next two years in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He was then transferred back to Australia and put in charge of construction in a shipyard in Brisbane controlled by the US Army. The employees included some 800 Chinese workers and the experience he gained at that time proved invaluable when he came to Hong Kong.

In 1950, Vaughan came to Hong Kong to join a shipping concern by the name of Hong Kong Transportation Co (hereafter refer to as HKT) as Chief Supervisor of a fleet of barges being built for Pakistan. The head of HKT was Liverpool native William Gordon Robertson, who was a major player in the molasses business in Asia as the head of Pure Cane Molasses HK Ltd, the Hong Kong branch of the United Molasses group since the 1920s (he was also involved with setting up United Molasses’ operations in Java and Durban, South Africa).[1]

Under the leadership of Danish born Sir Michael Kroyer Kielberg in the first half of the 20th century, United Molasses controlled half of the world’s molasses market and since molasses were shipped all across the globe, the firm maintained a large fleet of tankers and was one of the most influential British firms in the global shipping industry alongside the major oil companies.[2]

Other directors of HKT included R.J. Crokam, an exporter of Chinese goods whose business was later taken over by W.A. Somerville and Peter J. Griffiths, a senior partner with the law firm Wilkinson & Grist. Aside from HKT and Pure Cane Molasses, Robertson was also involved in marine insurance via Pacific Islands Insurance and all three businesses operated out of the same office at Marina House at 19 Queen’s Road Central with F.M. Silva as secretary in 1950.[3]

A year after Vaughan’s joining, HKT started its own shipyard with Vaughan as Manager. In 1953, Kielberg retired from United Molasses and on December 13, 1956, Robertson incorporated International Molasses Ltd in HK which according to one source in 1960 enjoyed “a monopoly over the collection, distribution and transportation of all the available molasses in Asia” and even Mitsubishi, the only importer of molasses in Japan at the time bought all its Asian molasses through the firm.[4] The same day International Molasses was incorporated, Pacific Islands Shipbuilding Co was also incorporated to assume the shipbuilding activities of HKT with Vaughan at the helm as Managing Director and Senior Partner.

The five years between 1957 and 1962 was a period of high growth for Pacific Islands. During this period, the firm’s shipyard in Ngau Tau Kok (set up in September 1956) employed up to 1,000 workers at one point [5] and built a good number of commercial vessels for a variety of clients throughout the Pacific region, most of which are listed below:

Select List of Vessels built by HK Transportation/Pacific Islands Shipbuilding from 1958 to 1962 [6]


Promotional fan of “Hong Kong Lady” (Source: WorthPoint)

1958 – Degei II – cargo/passenger ship, 168 tons, built for Fiji
1958 – Thamada – pilot ship, 778 tons.
1958 – Nat Tharr –tug, 637 tons, built for Rangoon, Myanmar
1959 – Coral Queen – towing vessel, 226 tons, built for Solomon Islands.
1959 – Membau – tanker, 921 tons, renamed Barkat, Bangladesh
1961 – Caltex 134, tug, 437 tons, built for Caltex Oil
1961 – Pipi Gari – cargo, 136 tons, built for Steamships Trading Co of Papua, renamed D. Renro
1961 – Moanui – cargo, 944 tons, built for Northern Steamship of New Zealand. Renamed Aik Lai under Singaporean ownership.
1962 – Awanui – cargo, 1858 tons, also built for Northern Steam Ship Co. Renamed Mekong Express and sunk in Vietnam in 2007
1962 – Hong Kong Lady – floating restaurant, 1017 tons, renamed Singapore Lady

In addition to these vessels the Ceylonese government was also a big client as they awarded Pacific Islands the contracts to build 100 80-ton capacity steel barges for the port of Colombo in 1959 at a cost of US$39,650 each and also ordered 4 passenger launches for general service in Colombo harbor which could each take 100 passengers.[7]

Given Vaughan’s US army background, it was natural for him to solicit business from the US government, which was escalating its military presence in Asia at the time. In September 1956, HKT was selected by the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), the US government agency which ran all foreign aid from 1955 to 1961 before the formation of USAID, to provide ferry barges in Laos. However, this sparked a congressional investigation in 1959 as the ICA Transportation Advisor who selected HKT without looking at other firms – William E. Kirby – not only received US$500 from HKT but subsequently joined Pacific Islands in 1957. When questioned, Vaughan asked to have the US consulate in HK to investigate the case which was denied and he was asked to go to Washington DC to testify.[8]


“Hong Kong Lady” after Typhoon Wanda. Source: Screenshot of Pathe news footage from 1962.

Another high profile but difficult client of Pacific Islands was Don the Beachcomber, the tiki bar and restaurant chain (up to 16 at one point) founded by Donn Beach (original name Ernest Gantt, 1907-1989), the globetrotting Texas native who invented the concept of Polynesian/tiki restaurants in America and invented two staples of Americanized Chinese restaurants – pu pu platter and Mai Tai cocktails. Convinced about the rise of American tourists in Asia and growing wealth of Asian consumers, Don the Beachcomber invested HK$2 million (US$400,000) and commissioned Pacific Islands Shipbuilding to build a 145 feet long, Mississippi style riverboat which was launched in early 1962 as “Hong Kong Lady” in Victoria Harbor as a floating restaurant/nightclub.


“Singapore Lady” (Source: Roots Singapore)

Sadly in late August, early September of the same year, the vessel was wrecked during Typhoon Wanda and in 1963 a lawsuit was filed between Pacific Islands and Don the Beachcomber.  The boat was later refurbished and sailed down to Singapore where it was rechristened the “Singapore Lady” and operated as a floating restaurant at Khoo Teck Puat’s Goodwood Park Hotel from 1968 to 1972.[9]

Despite its growth, Pacific Islands initiated a series of layoffs in 1960 and also in 1962 – laying off 80 workers in January and more in May/June.[10] According to Chinese sources (mostly bios of Henry Fok), Pacific Islands Shipbuilding was acquired by the pro-Beijing tycoon Fok around this time, and some of these sources said the transaction was one of the first Chinese acquisitions of foreign owned firms in Hong Kong. It was rolled under Yau Wing Co Ltd, Fok’s marine engineering operation.

Vaughan did not stay at Pacific Islands under the new ownership and in 1963 incorporated Vaughan & Yung Engineering Co Ltd. In 1965, he was awarded the highest profile project of his career – the featured gunboat San Pablo for the set of a high budget Hollywood movie shot in Hong Kong – The Sand Pebbles starring Steve McQueen and directed by Oscar winning director Robert Wise (Sound of Music and West Side Story).

The boat cost US$250,000 to build which made it the most expensive prop built for a movie at the time. There is a dispute online as to whether the boat was built by Cheoy Lee, Pacific Islands or Vaughan & Yung (some movie guides misspell the name as “Vaughn & Jung”).

The article below, which was published in Vaughan’s hometown newspaper in Petersburg, Virginia settles the dispute:

The Progress-Index from Petersburg, VA, Sunday, July 4, 1965

Shipbuilder Aids Movie Industry J. H. VAUGHAN


A former Ettrick man now living in Hong Kong is building the floating set for a major Hollywood production due {or filming this fall. James H. Vaughan, here for a family visit, said that his shipbuilding company has been commissioned by 20th Century-Fox to build a replica of a gunboat on which about half the movie “The Sand Pebbles” will be filmed. The movie, starring Steve McQueen, is based on a Richard McKenna novel and tells the story of an American gunboat, the “San Pablo” on the Yangtze River during the 1920’s. Vaughan, a principal of Vaughan and Yung Engineering Co., Ltd., says that building the replica has been his most interesting job, but that it has also presented problems.

The original gunboat was built in 1886 of riveted construction. Its 150-foot counterpart is all welded. To make the replica look like the original a crew chipped the welding and then glued on 32,000 rivet heads. The boat will have a three- pound gun on the bow and a one- pound gun on the stern. It will be launched July 16 in appropriate ceremonies and will then be outfitted. Filming will start in the early fall. About half the action in the movie will be shot on the boat. Part of the filming will be done in Hong Kong and in Formosa, Vaughan said. A great deal of research went into the project before the plans were started. Fox technicians consulted with the author located several old photographs and examined plans in the Navy Museum in Washington. Then preliminary plans were drawn and sent to Vaughan who began working out the finer details with the assistance of the technicians. Also on the scene and viewing possible locations has been Robert Wise, director of “West Side Story” and “Sound of Music” who is directing the current production. The movie is set in the 1920s when China was split by warlords and civil strife. The name “Sand Pebbles” comes from the nickname given the original boat by her crew. Vaughan has been a ship builder since 1946 and has been in the Far East for the past 24 years. His company specializes in barges, tugboats, floating cranes and small coastal vessels and these are shipped as far away as New Zealand, Australia, the Persian Gulf and to other Pacific Islands. Vaughan has been visiting his parents, Mr. and Mrs. W. S. Vaughan, and other relatives here.”

Source: https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/47753795/


Screenshot from the behind the scene movie about the production of Sand Pebbles where the film’s director Robert Wise (first from the left) was discussing with representatives of the shipbuilder about San Pablo. Could the two gentlemen on the right be Vaughan and Yung?

Footage of the production of San Pablo on Youtube:

More details about San Pablo can be found at this link:

SCMP article about Steve McQueen’s time in HK including San Pablo

Aside from San Pablo, not too many other Vaughan & Yung vessels were built, the only one I can find is MAC PB 12, a pile driving vessel built in 1965.

In 1967, tragedy struck as Vaughan’s wife Colleen Murray died in Hong Kong, leaving a daughter Alice and son James.

Not much information is available about JH Vaughan after that and the firm of Vaughan & Yung was eventually dissolved in 1987.

As for Pacific Islands Shipbuilding, the firm evolved from manufacturing slow moving tugs and barges to high speed hydrofoils as its new owner Henry Fok looked for ways to promote his Macau gambling concession. Fok and his partner Stanley Ho were first introduced by Jardines to Supramar AG, a Swiss firm founded by German engineer Hanns von Schertel who invented the first commercial hydrofoil in 1952 and purchased in 1968 by Persian banker Hussain Najadi (1938-2013, later founder of Ambank, one of Malaysia’s largest banking groups).

Supramar’s cutting edge hydrofoil technology could cut the trip from HK to Macau from 8 hours to one and a quarter and realizing the benefits, Fok and Ho not only ordered 23 hydrofoils at a cost of US$6 million. However, in 1972, Fok decided to enter into a JV with Supramar to make hydrofoils for the Asian market and changed the name of Pacific Islands to Supramar Pacific Shipbuilding. In addition to the Macau shuttle operated by Fok and Ho’s Far East Hydrofoil, Supramar models were also used by ferries to Nansha, a district of Guangzhou which Fok was keen on developing.

Today the Macau ferry service TurboJet primarily uses Boeing JetFoil and Supramar Pacific is no longer active.[11]


Awanui – built by Pacific Islands Shipbuilding in 1962. Source: NZ Coastal Shipping


1. Hong Kong Sunday Herald, 1929-06-02; South Africa Sugar Journal, 1970
2. UM Group website; The Making of a Sugar Giant: Tate and Lyle, 1859-1989 (1990) by Philippe Charmin
3. Business Directory of Hong Kong & Macao, 1949
4. India Trade Journal, 1963. A firm of the same name (International Molasses Ltd, aka Intermol) was formed in London in 1966 as a joint venture between the National Molasses Co of the US (aka Namolco, then owned by C. Brewer which was one of the Big Five Companies of Hawaii and large sugar exporter and maker of Mauna Loa Macadamian Nuts) and the Louis-Dreyfus Group of France. There is no evidence that WG Robertson’s International Molasses in HK and Intermol in London are related. However, Robertson did maintain residence in Los Angeles and Pacific Islands was referred to as “US financed” in the Chinese press so it is possible that he was American in addition to being British.
5. “US Financed Shipyard Lays Off Workers” Wen Hui Pao, 1960
6.Based on Lloyd’s Register of Shipping and other online and offline directories
7. m工商晚報, 1959-01-24, Far Eastern Economic Review
8. Goldstein, Martin, 1973, American Policy Toward Laos, Fairleigh Dickinson Press
9. https://roots.sg/learn/collections/listing/2008-04301
10. 華僑日報, 1962-02-01, 華僑日報, 1962-06-05
11. The Sea and the Hills: The Life of Hussain Najadi (2012), various shipping journals and directories, FEER

This article was first posted on 17th October 2016.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. American Marine boatyard – magazine article 1970 – information about employees needed
  2. American Marine boatyard – aftermath of Typhoon Wanda 1962
  3. American Marine Ltd boatyard, Junk Bay – great photographs
  4. Carolyn Quincy AKA Francis Marion – luxurious boat built at American Marine boatyard, Junk Bay
  5. Cheoy Lee Shipyard, Penny’s Bay, Lantau 1964-2001


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