Ship-building in Hong Kong

Hong Kong once had a thriving shipbuilding industry. Scattered over Junk Bay (now Tseung Kwan O), Tsing Yi, Aberdeen and as far as Cheung Chau and Lantau island, dozens of shipyards produced traditional Chinese  wooden crafts, mostly sailing junks and sampans. The largest of them all, the famous Whampoa, operated several shipyards across the colony, dedicated to repairing passing freighters and passenger ships as well as building  western-style vessels such as Wayfoong (Aberdeen, 1930), Java (1932) and in the 1950s,  the Star Ferries. Cheoy Lee, on the other hand, specialised in the construction of medium-sized working boats and leisure crafts, such as the splendid Rapid Transit (1984)

The advent of fiberglass in the sixties and seventies did not put an immediate end to wooden boat construction as it did  in Europe and North America. The doom of Hong Kong’s wooden ships came twenty years later, in the late nineties, when Mainland shipyards started producing fiberglass vessels in Zhuhai at a fraction of the cost.

Nowadays, Hong Kong’s shrinking wooden fleet is maintained by a handful of shipyards in Shum Wan and Ap Lei Chau, such as the famous Sun Hing Shing, the builders of Man Wah (1980).

Cheoy Lee

Cheoy Lee Shipyard operated at Penny’s Bay, Lantau from 1964 to April 2001.

Cheoy Lee Shipyard, Penny’s Bay, Lantau

The company was founded in 1870 in Shanghai by the Lo family. In 1936 when the Japanese Imperial Army [invaded China] the yard was moved to British-controlled Hong Kong, where the Lo family thought the yard would be safe. But the Japanese took over Hong Kong, too, and the Lo family fled to [China]. During the next four years the occupying army carted off everything made of metal in the yard. When the oldest son of the Lo family returned in 1946 he found nothing left. He began building his first post-war boat with his own two hands. His name is Lo To.
Cheoy Lee’s business grew and soon Lo To had dozens of workers building commercial vessels…In the early 1950s he began experimenting in fiberglass and Cheoy Lee was one of the first yards in the world to use the new material. Ten years later it would become the world’s marine pioneer in composite sandwich fiberglass construction. (3)

The Cheoy Lee Company has been a major builder of ships and all types of boats for over 100 years. With roots tracing back to 1870 in a building at a repair yard in Po Tung Point, Shanghai, Cheoy Lee Shipyards has had a colourful and successful history. Originally producing wooden commercial craft from a shipyard in Shanghai, Cheoy Lee moved to Hong Kong in 1936. (1)

Cheoy Lee Shipyard has been owned and operated by the same family for more than a century. As a building and a repair yard at Po Tung Point in Shanghai, Cheoy Lee began producing steam powered craft. After 1936, the business moved to what was then the British territory of Hong Kong.
By the mid 1950’s, the shipyard diversified into the production of teak sailing and motor yachts and the success of the newly formed pleasure craft division was soon apparent. By the mid 1960’s, a majority of the company’s production was pleasure craft, with large numbers being exported to the United States.
During the 1960’s, Cheoy Lee was one of the pioneers in the development, testing and use of fiberglass construction techniques and a forerunner in the use of GRP/Foam sandwich technology in the marine field.
In 1977, Cheoy Lee built a 130′ motor sailer, the world’s largest GRP vessel of the time.
Other than on a strictly custom basis, Cheoy Lee stopped building sailing yachts in 1990 to concentrate on large Motor Yachts.
To accommodate this expansion, the company moved to a new purpose-built, state-of-the-art shipyard facility in mainland China.

 The Cheoy Lee  Company has been a major builder of ships and all types of boats for over  100 years.  With roots tracing back to 1870 in a building at a repair yard in Po Tung Point in Shanghai, Cheoy Lee Shipyards has had a colorful and successful history.   Originally producing wooden commercial craft from a shipyard in Shanghai, Cheoy Lee moved operations to Hong Kong in 1936.  Initially specializing in the production of powered cargo vessels to outrun the Japanese blockade, Cheoy Lee later diversified into the large scale production of teak sailing and motoryachts.  Most of these were exported to the US.  During the 50s trawlers were built for the United Nation Korean Reconstruction Agency.  During the early 1960’s, Cheoy Lee made steady progress in the development, testing and use of fiberglass and by the mid 1960’s wood construction had been phased out.  Cheoy Lee became one of the first shipyard users of fiberglass and in turn became one of the pioneers of GRP/foam sandwich technology in the marine field.  According to David Toombs from Lion Yachts “over 4,500 Cheoy Lee yachts  were delivered and he points out that it is interesting that usually no more than 50 or so are available at any given time on the market“.  He also points out that Cheoy Lee has stopped production for all designs under 50′ due to worldwide demand for the larger motorsailers and motoryachts.  For the record David claims to be the original Cheoy Lee Distributor dating from 1960 and made over 70 trips to Hong Kong spending over a year in the shipyard there monitoring all phases of construction.  He goes on to say that in its over 110 years of family ownership Cheoy Lee has become a major factor in yacht building, fully Lloyds Approved, with a modern climate controlled facility.   David probably knows more about Cheoy Lees than anyone else in North America.  

Today Cheoy Lee makes everything from ferries to tugboats and several models of large motor yachts up to 446 tons and 144′ in length.  The only sailboats currently produced, as far as I am aware of, are the 53, 63, and the 78′ Motorsailors plus a 77′ Pilothouse Cutter.

The following information submitted by Tom Gilson from Cheoy Lee North America  11/99

A few things you may want to know about the company.  The company’s main production facility is currently located on Lantau Island, which is also where Hong Kong’s new airport recently opened.  Cheoy Lee recently acquired a new shipyard facility on the Pearl River 60 miles from Hong Kong on mainland China. (The old facility will be closed in April of 2000 as Disney World moves in).  This facility is reached via high speed ferry from Hong Kong, with customs and immigrations located next to the yard.  The new shipyard is at the center of over 20 shipyards.  Consequently, there is a huge pool of skilled labor in the area with an almost unlimited capacity to expand.  A state-of-the-art facility is now in operation, including a 1,000 ton railway lift, a 150 ton travel lift, dedicated paint sheds and on-site dormitories that will house up to 400 yard employees.  Capable of producing vessels in excess of 200 feet, the new yard promises to keep Cheoy Lee in the forefront of shipbuilding for generations to come.   

Hello, James–
May I pass along some information on Cheoy Lees?  It may be commonly known;  I really don’t know.  I have heard some of this from various sources, and all of it from a man who worked in the Cheoy Lee yard in 1963, overseeing the construction of a large yacht for a wealthy American buyer.   Do you know anyone who could give us any further verification?
With some Cheoy Lees (the glass Frisco Flyers, for instance), the hulls would be built in one spot in Kowloon and then launched and  towed to another location where they would be finished out with interior, deck, etc. (I doubt the same was true of the wood ones.)   The reason:  the boat shops where the glass hulls were built had to be dehumidified.   When the boats were finished out, the work was done by families who made their living as boat builders, and if the boat was large enough the family might move aboard until the work was done.   (Most certainly this was NOT done with the little Frisco Flyer hulls, which were built by a large number of men who would arrive at work in the morning and leave in the evening, at closing time.) There was no electricity as of 1963 in this second yard, and any milling of wood, joinery, etc. either had to be done somewhere else or done by hand on site. 
Most of the hulls had intricate carvings of dragons in their interiors. The families which built the boats would make their dragon carvings different in large ways or small to indicate which family had built that boat.
Since then I have heard this last detail said about boats built in other Kowloon yards– but I’ve only had some verification of it for the Cheoy Lee yard.
A famous cruising couple in the fifties and sixties was Al and Marjorie Patterson.   Al Patterson died of cancer some years ago; Marjorie published a book, a great read, titled “Red Skies at Night,” before her  death a few years ago.   The book  includes a page or so on the Cheoy Lee yard, which was near a yacht club which they visited.  (Not many details.)
Well… hope I am not boring you with things well known–

It all started in 1960 when I was in the market for a sailboat in the 35’ range.  I had occasion to be in San Francisco and had heard of a 35’ all teak Arthur Robb designed sloop, the LION class, built by the then unknown CHEOY LEE SHIPYARD of Hong Kong, and which could be seen in Alameda.  The price was right and the quality very high so I ordered one.  On arrival and on closer inspection it seemed even better so I decided to establish a dealership, LION YACHTS.  In the remaining 3 months of the year LION sold out CHEOY LEEs entire production of 25 units of the LION class for that year.  All this before fiberglass.

Subsequently we went on to encourage CHEOY LEE to build in the then new and unfamiliar material now called fiberglass, of which they were well aware as they had engaged in much experimentation and coordination with LLOYDS (Surveyors), to establish a moulding and materials Specification.  As our business continued to prosper we developed more modern designs, the ROBB 35, the 41’ Reliant, and the many Bill Luders designs (LUDERS 36, the CLIPPER series 33,36,42,48’,  OFFSHORE 47), the Ray Richards designs, and lastly the PEDRICK series, (36,38,41,43,47,55).  At the peak of production CHEOY LEE became probably the world’s largest builder of sailing yachts, with worldwide distribution. 

Sailboat production at CHEOY LEE ended about 1990 when they elected to expand their very large motoryacht business, now 61’ to 200’, and to increase their ongoing commercial business in steel, aluminum, and fiberglass.  Today CHEOY LEE hull numbers exceed 5,100, and employment is about 1,000.  Since 1962 CHEOY LEE has been a fully LLOYDS APPROVED Shipyard, in all building materials, and in 2006 completed ISO 9001 Certification. 

1967 Cheoy Lee’s Penny’s Bay site was established on Lantau Island. This was a unique 18 hectare facility with 1.5km of waterfront. The site never had road access during the 35-year tenure. All labour, materials and equipment were transported daily by sea.

1964 Cheoy Lee’s most prolific year. 252 vessels were entered into our order book, driven mainly by rocketing yacht sales into the US market. The majority of these orders were in the 8-15 meter range, less than half the size of our typical output today.

1957 The first production yacht was completed, a Lion 35 sloop. Over 70 Lions were built in wood, with a further 27 in fibreglass in the later years.

1936 The family shipyard moved to Hong Kong. World War II broke out shortly after, at which time the shipyard specialised in re-powering merchant sailing vessels to out-run the Japanese blockade.

1996 Cheoy Lee concluded negotiations to sell the Penny’s Bay site for the construction of Hong Kong Disney, and seized the opportunity to move manufacturing a short distance across the border into mainland China.

1997 Cheoy Lee’s new building facility Hin Lee (Zhuhai) Shipyard officially opened on the Pearl River delta. This is a modern 12hectare facility, fully equipped to build commercial and pleasure vessels in steel, GRP and aluminium, with onsite staff housing for 1000 employees.

1980 Construction of the first production all foam cored vacuum bagged motoryacht. This 48 Sportfisherman comprehensively out performed lower tech rivals, which saw the model make the crossover to patrol and law enforcement applications. This was also the cornerstone of a long and successful relationship with the legendary naval architect Tom Fexas.

1977 The largest GRP yacht of its time, the 40m (130 feet) motor sailer Shango II was built at the Penny’s Bay facility from a custom one-off mould. Shango II is now a motoryacht, with masts removed, and named Nataly.

Over 100 years and five generations of uninterrupted ship building, Cheoy Lee’s unwavering commitment to dependable products and service endures. Originating from Shanghai, Cheoy Lee is the embodiment of the Lo family’s tradition to advance their craft, continually creating new chapters in the chronicle of this iconic institution.

The roots of the Lo family’s shipbuilding journey reach back to the 1870’s, although it was in 1936 that the family business moved to the then British colony of Hong Kong, marking the start of the Cheoy Lee Shipyards that we know today. Initially specializing in mechanizing sail powered cargo vessels during World War II, by the mid-1950’s Cheoy Lee had diversified into the production of teak sailing and motoryachts, mostly built for export to America. Come the 1960’s, this now burgeoning pleasure craft division of Cheoy Lee accounted for 90% of all production from the yard.

Expansion of the shipyard was required, and it was at this time that the Penny’s Bay site in Hong Kong was established. As a pioneer in the development of fiberglass as a boat building material, Cheoy Lee recognized the savings in weight, greater strength and longevity that this new material offered. Constantly investing in research and improving production techniques, Cheoy Lee honed their fiberglass capabilities to become a forerunner in the marine use of GRP (and foam sandwich) construction. In 1977, Cheoy Lee built the world’s largest molded fiberglass yacht of its time, the 130 foot motorsailer Shango II, and by 1979 the first all foam cored production motor yacht came online; the Cheoy Lee 48’ Sport Yacht. With outstanding hull design from the visionary naval architect Tom Fexas, coupled with the vacuum bagged foam cored laminates, this model was revolutionary, even breaking into the patrol boat sector, technologically superior and markedly outperforming rival yacht and patrol craft at the time.

In parallel with the construction of composite yachts, Cheoy Lee commercial vessels continued to be built predominantly in steel and aluminium, and the 1990’s saw a strong resurgence of Cheoy Lee commercial vessel output. At the end of that decade, Cheoy Lee relinquished the Penny’s Bay site that had been home for some 35 years, to take advantage of the skilled and competitive labour that existed just across the border in China. By the end of the 1990’s, the entire shipbuilding operation had been moved to Zhuhai in southern China, just 45 miles to the west of Hong Kong. The Penny’s Bay site meanwhile was transformed into what is now Hong Kong Disneyland.

Cheoy Lee maintains the head office and small repair yard in Kowloon, Hong Kong, with all construction now carried out at the Zhuhai facility. Cheoy Lee will continue to keep advances in technology in sharp focus, and above all, remain dedicated to production of the highest quality products, with service to match.

American Marine Ltd (Grand Banks)

Junk Bay (photo Thomas Sposato)

More than 50 years ago, on Mok Cheong Street [Ma Tau Wai/To Kwa Wan] next to Eastern Cotton Mills, was a soft drink bottling plant managed by the founder of American Marine, Robert Newton.

In the 1950s, Robert Newton already in his late 50s, an age when many people start to think about retirement, …decided to start a boat building venture at his bottling plant’s parking lot…

In 1962, Robert J. Newton and his sons, John and Whit, were running a custom boatyard on Junk Bay in Hong Kong called American Marine, Ltd. Father and sons built heavy sailboats and big motor yachts, to designs by the world’s top marine architects – Sparkman & Stevens, William Garden, Nat Herreshoff, Ray Hunt and others.

That year they commissioned Kenneth Smith, another well-known marine architect, to design a 36 foot, diesel-powered cruising boat. Spray was launched in 1963 and a year later the Newtons abandoned their custom yacht building to focus on producing the first of a line of boats that would be known as Grand Banks.

Even before Spray, however, there was the Chantyman that American Marine built of wood in its Hong Kong yard. Diesel-powered, the 34′ 6″ boat had a raised pilothouse, high bulwarks and softer hull lines (no hard chines). It was unlike Spray or the 36GBs that would follow, but Chantyman certainly was a design that introduced the concept of a production trawler-type yacht to the boating world.” (2)

“In the 1960s Harold’s son Harvey Halvorsen became the company designer, and in 1975 he formed a joint venture between Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty. Ltd. and Joseph Kong, former General Manager of American Marine Company, in Hong Kong to design, build and market a new range of pleasure boats worldwide. The company was called Kong & Halvorsen Marine & Engineering Company, Ltd.” (3)

1961-1983 Tony Fleming served as the technical director of American Marine in Hong Kong, builder of the Grand Banks line of trawler yachts. He was largely responsible for the development of these well-known yachts and later organized the company’s new yard in Singapore, becoming its General Manager. While at American Marine, Tony also helped develop the highly respected Alaskan series of pilothouse yachts.” 

Kong & Halvorson Ltd

Clearwater Bay, 1976


When we started the Joint Venture with Joseph Kong in 1975, I decided to start designing a range of boats to build and market through our dealer 
network. At this stage, American Marine was in bankruptcy and I felt that we could design and build a better and more attractive range, and never dreamt that we would one day end up in competition with them.

I decided to start with a 30 foot design, and while I was drawing it out of nowhere came the name “ISLAND GYPSY”. I thought this was perfect as it 
conjured up thoughts of cruising the Great Barrier Reef and other exotic lands with girls in Hula skirts. I had been thinking of a name to call our boats in case one day we wanted to sell out, as I would never have considered selling the Halvorsen name.

After settling on the name I contacted the dealers for an opinion, and all of them were delighted with the name except our dealer in Newport Beach 
California, who was also a very good friend of mine. He was worried that customers may link the name to the Romany Gypsy’s of Europe, who were 
not particularly honest. I wouldn’t budge on the name, so “ISLAND GYPSY” it was.

Next on the agenda was designing the logo and I settled on the crossed flags theme which was popular in the U.S.A. on large Motor Yachts. The letters on the flags are “K” and “H” to tie in with Kong & Halvorsen. Several years later I suddenly remembered that we had restored a large boat by that name and thought that this had possibly been the source of the inspiration. Much later I found 
out that we had built the boat in 1948 for the tourist trade on the Great Barrier Reef, when I was just 9 years old. 

Joseph H H Kong was the very first employee of American Marine. By 1972, he was in charge of the company’s wooden boat shipyard in Junk Bay. When American Marine stopped building wooden boats to focus entirely on GRP hulls in its Simgapore plant, Mr Kong formed a partnership with Harvey Halvorson to start building trawler type boats in an adjacent boatyard. Here and in the nearby Shekou Industrial Zone in Mainland China he produced trawler Yachts, Sportsfishermen and German Frers-designed Dawn 48 ketches

In the 1960s Harold’s Halvorsen’s son Harvey became the company designer [of Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty. Ltd] and in 1975 he formed a joint venture between Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty. Ltd. and Joseph Kong, former General Manager of American Marine Company, in Hong Kong to design, build and market a new range of pleasure boats worldwide. The company was called Kong & Halvorsen Marine & Engineering Company, Ltd.” (1)

By the 1960s Harold’s son Harvey’s exceptional design skills were added to the talent base, and in 1975 a joint venture company was formed in Hong Kong to design, build and market a new range of pleasure boats worldwide. The company was called “Kong & Halvorsen Marine & Engineering Company” and over the next decade would build hundreds of the craft ranging from 30′ to 80′ under the “Kong & Halvorsen” and “Island Gypsy ” brand names.
By the early eighties production had moved across the border to Southern China, and to the present day over 900 Halvorsen Boats have been built and exported worldwide. (2)kong-halvorsen-boat-building-yard-main-office-clearwater-bay-c1976

Kong & Halvorsen yard, main office building, Clearwater Bay, c1976 Courtesy:

Many thanks to Thomas Sposato for sending the article below. And also to Peter Wong who typed it out.
“Joseph HH Kong began his boat building career many years ago, as the very first employee of American Marine, builders of Grand Banks and Alaskan motor yachts. When I first met him, in 1972, he was in charge of the company’s wooden boat plant at Hong Kong’s Junk Bay. Having been shown through that sweet-smelling shop where some 1,500 craftsmen were framing, planking, and finishing extraordinarily handsome yachts, I commented to Kong that quality control seemed to be one of his strong points.

“Oh yes,” he said, opening a file drawer and pulling out a folder at random, “each boat has its own quality control record. Go ahead, take a look.” I leafed through a considerable sheaf of inspectors’ reports, and noticed that this particular boat, hull No. 431, had failed one inspection because of a portion of a thumb print in the transom varnish near the waterline. Obviously, Kong had a eye for detail.

When American Marine stopped building wooden yachts and concentrated on fiberglass construction in its Singapore plant, Kong formed a partnership with Australian Harvey Halvorsen and, with some of his key people, moved to another site in Junk Bay. Here, and in the nearby Shekou Industrial Zone in the People’s Republic of China, the firm builds fiberglass sportfishermen, trawler yachts, and motor yachts from 30′ to 110′ l.o.a. [the maximum length of a vessel’s hull measured parallel to the waterline] as well as the Frers-designed Dawn 48 ketch. The yard also does custom work (sometimes in other materials), most recently a 130′ motor yacht.”

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