The demise of the Seawise University, aka Queen Elizabeth liner, in Hong Kong harbour

HF: IDJ, long-time contributor to this website, has contributed the following article about the Seawise University ship, originally the Queen Elizabeth liner. As you will read IDJ witnessed at first-hand the demise of the ship. He also took the photographs of the ship. I am very grateful for his contribution in both areas.

Thanks to SCT for proofreading the retyped version of the IDJ’s article.


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IDJ: The 1930s, R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth liner as she was still generally known, arrived in Hong Kong in 1971 at the end of an eventful voyage from its base in Florida. It had been disposed of by the Cunard Line in the UK. Its new owners named it Seawise University, a play on the initials of C.Y. Tung the father of the first Chinese governor of Hong Kong, C.H. Tung. The new name took some time for most people’s conciseness to digest as the Queen Elizabeth had been such an iconic vessel known worldwide. The Tung family family based in Taiwan owned the Oriental Overseas Line whose cargo vessels were a common sight in Hong Kong’s harbour. Their distinctive flower logo briefly adorned the funnels on the Seawise University as did both names on its hull. C.Y. Tung had a vision of using the vessel as a platform for the World Campus Afloat education program (later renamed Semester at Sea.)

IDJ 2.

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The vessel was to be transformed into a floating university whereby students would be taken on voyages to places of interest around the world that they would be unlikely to visit in normal circumstances, along with conducting their formal university studies on-board. A smaller World Campus American liner was already calling at Hong Kong using this concept carrying students from the USA.


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After a welcoming arrival met by fireboats spraying fountains of water and the usual press ‘hoopla’s’, the ship settled down to a solitary existence moored in a wide-open anchorage between Tsing Yi and Lantau islands. The distant location became unacceptable to the vessel’s owner as large fleets of small motorboats known as ‘Walla-Wallas’ and larger ferries were transporting thousands of refurbishment workers the considerable distance between the ship and contractors bases spread mainly along the Lai Chi Kok waterfront in Kowloon, to and fro in all weathers. A one-way journey could take 30-40 minutes, therefore this entailed a considerable loss of working time at the start and end of each day.


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The Seawise University was subsequently moved into the inner-harbour to a position between Tsing Yi Island and Stonecutters Island that had recently been dredged as a pathway to accommodate the new breed of large container ships needing to reach the container port at Kai Chung that was under construction.


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As a result of this movement the Seawise University was now in a close-up full view to this writer who has offered the images accompanying this piece. He was working on Tsing Yi Island at the time, and also travelling twice a day by Walla-Wallas passing the ship daily to his place of work. There was no Tsing Yi road bridge to gain access to the island at this stage.


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On Sunday afternoon this writer was enjoying a few beverages in an employee’s club bar in Jardines Lookout when residents were drifting in and out relaying commentary to everyone that the Seawise University was on fire. Unfortunately, although overlooking the harbour we could not see it due to a severe heat-haze. Arriving home later, Rediffusion TV news broadcasts confirmed the extent of the fire, so a camera, film and a range of lenses were prepared for the voyage to work the next day.


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Boarding our Walla-Walla at a very lashed-up temporary pier near the container port’s reclamation works, we approached the burning vessel. Even though police launches and fireboats were nearby no one prevented us slowly circling the ship which was starting to lean over. Hull doors at the waterline were observed to be open and sea water starting to flow into the hull. After two or three circuits we had to depart for our place of work.


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At midday someone who was watching the ship, shouted out that it was about to roll over and from a very elevated position, this writer was able to capture three or four sequence shots of its ‘death roll.’ By this time the air was full of helicopters dodging each other amongst the considerable amount of smoke billowing from the ship’s hull. By late afternoon and time to go home, the smoke had diminished, and we again circumnavigated around the smoldering destroyed and distorted hull.


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Over the following years, we witnessed the ship being cut-up to the waterline and below by Korean divers. But not before a James Bond movie (The Man with the Golden Gun) used the wreck as a backdrop.

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A Commission of Enquiry came to no single conclusion as to the cause of the fire, although political agitators were known to be amongst the workers. Blame was spread due to the fact that hull doors were left wide open and that no attempts were made to beach the ship on the nearby shore away from the shipping lanes. In recent years during a reunion lunch in Hong Kong, one of the writers’ ex-colleagues revealed that he had been on board the ship as an engineering cadet and escaped by clambering down the anchor chain. He was convinced that multiple fires were the cause of the fast-spreading all enveloping fire led to its demise.

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Memories are short and in recent years questions have been asked as to where exactly are the ship’s remains? Variously, Wikipedia claimed that it had been moved to the new International airport’s runways as part of the reclamation process, others wondered how much of the vessel remained in the mud.

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The following is quoted from an R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth historian/expert/author.

Ringo Varisco, Curator of the RMS Queen Elizabeth Historical Society, and author of R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth-Cunard’s Big Beautiful Ship of Life, a heavyweight coffee table book published in 2013 explains:

To clear up all the confusion, the 15,000 or so tons which still remain of the Seawise University – the former RMS Queen Elizabeth, are now buried under about 40 feet of mud in the middle of the Rambler Channel which is the stretch of water that separates Tsing Yi Island and mainland Kowloon. The remains are nowhere near the new airport and have never been covered by a runway as has often been mistakenly claimed. The wreck was cut down as far as the waterline and then large sections were blasted apart underwater until all that remained was a 100-foot-long section of double bottom hull containing the aft boiler rooms which were already mostly filled with the muddy sludge of the harbour bottom and deeply buried anyway. So, to set the record straight, the original hull or what’s left of it, still has mud and then water above it, not a runway or other foundations. She was sufficiently buried deep enough to pose no threat to shipping. Her nearest landmarks are Container Terminal 9 and the Tsing Yi Island end pillars of the Stonecutter’s Bridge.

This article was first posted on 10th April 2024.

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  1. The demise of the historic liner Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbour

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