May 2019
Fans for the memory
2020 will mark Swire's 150th year of doing business in Hong Kong. In the lead up to the anniversary, we're featuring a variety of unusual 'treasures' from the group's archives that help tell the story of how Swire's evolution has been closely intertwined through the years with that of its home city.

This pretty Chinese silk fan is printed with the menu for a dinner served on the China Navigation Company vessel Changsha, circa 1968, and recalls the swan-song of CNCo's regular passenger liner services at the end of the 1960s.

Changsha and her sistership Taiyuan were purpose-built on the Clyde for the Hong Kong – Australia trade. The ships entered service in 1949 and offered regular calls to ports on the East Coast of Australia, via the Philippines and Port Moresby. The names Changsha and Taiyuan revived those of an earlier pair of vessels which had served the trade from 1886. Following the sale of those two ships in 1912, CNCo stayed out of Australian waters for more than 30 years – only re-entering the trade after World War II.

In the late 1940s, shipbuilding prices were sky-high and many ship owners chose to re-equip post-war with cheap, mass-produced wartime standard "Liberty Ships". China Navigation, which had lost more than half its fleet to the conflict, opted instead for long-term investment and built quality new tonnage, even though this meant paying a premium. As Swire's first post-war vessels built for a trade outside Mainland China, Changsha and Taiyuan were expensive, even in the context of such a pricy market. This significant investment reflected the growing importance to CNCo of its trade between Hong Kong and Australia, as its "traditional" China coast services were progressively closed to foreign shipping.

Carrying just over 80 passengers each, in addition to general and refrigerated cargo, Changsha and Taiyuan were immediately popular – which was hardly surprising given they offered a standard of comfort and service that was hard to come by in those austere post-war years. CNCo ships were famous for their cuisine and the exceptional skill of their Hong Kong chefs. In the spacious dining saloon, gleaming silver plate and snow-white starched linen were presided over by an army of immaculate and attentive stewards. Passengers, too, dressed the part, with jacket and tie mandatory for men at dinner and women in formal dresses. The painted fan souvenir menu for each diner added an elegant touch to a Chinese banquet that was a popular feature of the trip. Other amusements on board were simple by today's standards, including fancy-dress nights, Walport movies, horse-racing (using wooden horses), cocktails and dancing to the ship's Filipino band. A traditional "Line-Crossing" ceremony saw King Neptune and his Queen subject first-time crossers of the equator to a variety of initiation rites (usually involving a dunking in the swimming pool) and certificates were issued. The cabins were roomy, the service excellent and the attention to detail went right down to Swire's London directors selecting the list of books to be found in the library.

By the late 60s, when a passenger took home this fan as a memento of the voyage, the heyday of the service was already at an end, with the speed, convenience and increasing cheapness of air travel meaning passenger numbers were steadily in decline. The ships were withdrawn from the service in 1969; Changsha was sold to a Singapore company and Taiyuan followed three years later. CNCo continued to maintain a stake in the cruise ship market for another two decades, but scheduled passenger liner services were at an end.
Swire News May 2019 nissue
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