In the first half of the 20th century, there were three tragic marine incidents that had a profound impact on Hong Kong.
The fire aboard the Hankow (1906)
The first case was the fire aboard the Hankow in 1906. At 3 a.m. on 13 October 1906, the Hankow arrived in Hong Kong, laden with cargo and carrying about 2,000 Chinese passengers. Some European passengers disembarked while the vessel was berthed alongside a wharf in Sheung Wan. Most of the Chinese passengers remaining on board the vessel were still asleep in their bunks or on the decks of the vessel. Without warning, a fire broke out in the aft of the vessel. The chief officer reported the fire to the shipmaster and fire-fighting action was immediately taken. Unfortunately, it was already too late to evacuate the remaining passengers. It took about six hours to finally extinguish the fire. The steamer was burnt to a skeleton, resulting in 111 fatalities.
The loss of the steamer Ying King (1908)
Two years later, the sinking of the Ying King, a vessel which plied regularly between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, came as an even greater shock to the community. Because of its sailing speed and reputation of being probably the luckiest ship on the run, many Chinese passengers took the vessel. The incident happened during a typhoon on 27 July 1908. The Ying King left Guangzhou and foundered in the waters of Hong Kong near Pillar Point, owing to a sudden huge gust of wind. Some 40 people were rescued, either plucked from the water or saved by the vessel’s lifeboats. Tung Wah Hospital arranged two launches to help collect bodies near the wreck in the waters of Castle Peak Bay. Two hundred passengers died in the incident.
A serious fire aboard the steamer Sai On (1947)
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.
- Report of the Harbour Master, 1901-1939; Reports for the Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade for the years 1909-1939.