On Sunday, 9 January 1972 the Queen Elizabeth, one of the greatest ocean liners of her age, caught fire in Hong Kong harbour and there was only one foreign journalist covering the story.
Chi Ma Wan was the site of a prison on the south eastern side of Lantau Island and its beach was closed to the public, making it a rare treat in crowded Hong Kong.
In addition to its stretch of undisturbed sand were tennis courts and a barbecue in a Chinese-style pavilion just off the beach which could be used by arrangement with the prison.
Later, the prison would be converted into a closed camp for Vietnamese refugees and days out at Chi Ma Wan came to an end.
But back in the early 1970s the Hong Kong Journalists Association Chi Ma Wan barbecues were a thriving institution.
Several times a year, Hong Kong’s finest journalists would board a boat and escape from phones, typewriters and ticker feeds for a day of pure relaxation.
If it was too cold for swimming, there was tennis for the adults and plenty of sand for us kids. I don’t recall getting bored with digging up clams with my toes. They were simpler times.
It must have been too cold for swimming when we went over to Chi Ma Wan on Sunday, 9 January 1972.
My sister was ill and stayed home with Mum, who was also a fine journalist.
There’s a good story to tell about her and the other women journalists who battled some pretty horrendous attitudes. For now, it’s enough to picture her at home with a sick child.
I don’t remember the details of the barbecue. I’m sure it was a day out like any other at Chi Ma Wan.
Arthur Hacker, a fine local historian and cartoonist, would have brought crumpets for afternoon tea. He always did, as the very model of an Englishman.
There would have been a tennis tournament. Much beer would have been consumed by the grown ups, and much Green Spot Orange by me. It was a day at Chi Ma Wan like any other.
As dusk fell we would have got back on the boat and headed for home. I would have dozed to the ever-present buzz in my childhood ear of my father and his friends topping each other with yet another good story.
That night, I was jerked out of my doze when the conversation stopped. Out on the black water was an orange glow. Somewhere out there a ship was on fire.
For Bax and his mates, it was an agony. What was it? Where was it? It was too big to be a fishing boat. Was it a cargo ship? A cruise ship? A warship?
What American ships were in town? Anyone? Where are they anchored? What if it was one of those? Did the Cold War just get hot?
They could do nothing but stare out into the darkness and speculate, ever more wildly, as the huge fire grew closer, its heat and noise ever fiercer.
On board our little boat the tension was unbearable. The journalists were like caged animals.
This was a STORY, a huge story, possibly the BIGGEST story and they were MISSING IT. When we finally docked there was a roar and the scramble for dry land and a telephone was ON.
Bax always knew the best places for a cab, no matter where we were in the city.
He hauled me down a back street and then another, various hacks familiar with the Baxter magic sprinting after us, others tearing off for their own favoured spots.
We dashed from back street to main road and straight into a cab. “Mac donno do pung yau, fi de- la,” he shouted in his best Aussie accented Cantonese and we were off.
When Bax and I got home we found my sister a little better but my mother a wreck. She’d spent the afternoon with the phone running hot – as Hong Kong’s only available stringer.
The fire we had seen was the former cruise ship Queen Elizabeth burning in the harbour. And the whole world had been after the story.
My mother had been dealing with copy takers from Sydney to London and just about everywhere in between, as wire services and newspapers failed to track down their regular correspondents.
So, wherever you were when you read the first reports of the Queen Elizabeth fire, that was the news, brought to you by my mum.
The ship had been renamed the SS Seawise University and was nearing completion of her refurbishment into a floating campus in Hong Kong harbour.
Fortunately, the 600 or so people on board all escaped with only some minor injuries.
The fire started small, in a heap of sweepings on ‘A’ deck. Within minutes, the Queen was an inferno, burning stem to stern and sending billows of smoke over the harbour.
All Sunday afternoon she raged. She listed to starboard and the fire boats were forced to stop pouring water into her, for fear she’d capsize.
By nightfall when we saw her she was a red firestorm, the angriest and most frightening thing I’ve ever seen.
For a while that night, as it roared in its heat and fury, I was convinced we were heading straight into the heart of an angry furnace.
At noon on the following day, the fire having consumed all it could, the ship rolled gently and settled on the shallow harbour floor.
The Queen was dead. Only her curiously twisted superstructure, wracked and bent with the heat of her last struggle, remained above water – a tilted monument to an ignominious death.
Tens of thousands had boarded her since she was christened just before World War II at Clydebank in Scotland.
Alone against German submarine wolf packs she had transported divisions of Allied soldiers from America and Australia to the war fronts, making dangerous speed dashes across the sub-prowled oceans.
After the war she ruled the Atlantic run as the flagship of the Cunard Line, unrivaled by all but her older sister, the RMS Queen Mary.
She was sold to some American promoters who tried to turn her into a dockside amusement show. When they went broke, the Queen was auctioned and went to Hong Kong shipping magnate C.Y. Tung for US$3 million.
It was reported that he wept when he heard the news of her passing.
Somewhere between US$5 million and $8 million had gone into a loving transformation for the ailing beauty, destined to be the jewel in his fleet of passenger liners, merchantmen and tankers.
Soon came the questions, registered first by her last British skipper the retired commodore Geoffrey Marr.
“I do not believe this fire could have been started accidentally,” he told reporters. “It must have been sabotage.”
Investigators found evidence of at least nine separate fires breaking out that afternoon from the bridge to the deep bowels aft on ‘C’ deck.
It was concluded that none of the fires initially was large or difficult to control but the cumulative effect of so many fires had caused the death of the Queen.
The bulk of the evidence pointed to experienced arsonists familiar with the ship, its security passes and patrols.
But their reasons remain cloaked in mystery. No one knows who killed the Queen and why.
Monarchs do not die in silence and suspicion and wild rumours flew around the colony for years.
One of the more intriguing was the story of eight-foot long Chinese characters for “China” and “America” painted on a roof between the funnel and the aft engine hatch.
Did they point to some kind of politically motivated attack on C.Y. Tung, who was known for his Nationalist sympathies?
Every couple of years I’d hear bits of that story get picked over by the journalists who had missed out on the breaking news that day.
They said there were photographs of the message, whatever it might mean, snapped by a newspaper photographer who flew over the still-smouldering wreck in a helicopter a few days after the fire.
They said the negatives had disappeared mysteriously from the newspaper library, but the prints had been in wide circulation for a while.
Were the pictures a hoax? If the story was true, as a political message, it was unclear. If it was a joke, it was impenetrable.
It took years to remove the wreck. She couldn’t be raised sufficiently to tow her to Junk Bay, Hong Kong’s ship graveyard. Divers went down daily to plant explosives and tear the corpse apart with underwater torches.
My mother wasn’t the only person it turned out to make a bit of money from the death of the Queen Elizabeth.
This being Hong Kong, it wasn’t long before bits of twisted, rusted metal were being sold as souvenirs. How many of the relics actually came from the royal wreck is debatable.
Bax told me he knew of several people who were knocking up souvenirs out of bits of old cars and the like.
Years later I saw one on proud display in my future father-in-law’s study. It looked very nice, a bit of rusted metal on a plinth with a little plaque proclaiming its provenance.
Was it a genuine piece of the Queen Elizabeth? How would you ever know? All it could ever be was just another mystery surrounding the death of a Queen.
Here’s a montage of photographs of RMS Queen Elizabeth by Nightwish, uploaded by TitanicMatthew who, like me, intends no copyright infringement.