by Martin Cox

(first appeared on MaritimeMatters in 2000. Updated in 2004, 2007, 2010)

Compagnie de Navigation Paquet's postcard of ANCERVILLE. Author's collection.


Compagnie de Navigation Paquet, Marseilles
Built by Chantiers de l’Atlantique, St. Nazaire
14,224 gt
551 x 72 ft
2 12-cyl diesels, Burmeister & Wain from builders
Twin Screw, 22 1/2 knots
Passengers: Four class: 22 de luxe, 149 comfort, 342 tourist, 243 standard

Paquet Postcard of ANCERVILLE

Launched on April 5, 1962 by the French president Charles de Gaulle, she entered service September 5, with a cruise to the Canary Islands, prior to her maiden voyage from Marseilles to Dakar. ANCERVILLE was noted for her decor and appointments, twin funnel and unusual layout with most public rooms aft and cabins forward. She sported three pools: Comfort Class pool and lido on Boat Deck; Tourist Class pool aft on A Deck, and Standard Class (4 – 10 berth cabins) with a pool on the foredeck. She operated liner service from Marseilles to Casablanca, the Canaries and on to Dakar. Compagnie de Navigation Paquet put her in service with S.S. LYAUTEY and the two vessels maintained an approximately weekly service, while ANCERVILLE also operated as a one-class cruise ship. In 1970, ANCERVILLE was transferred to Novelle Compagnie de Paquebots, Marseilles.

In April 1973, ANCERVILLE was purchased by The People’s Republic of China, renamed MINGHUA and placed in China to East Africa service. In June 1978, MIGHUA sailed to Viet-Nam’s Chinese colony on behalf of  the State Council of the Peoples Republic of China. The following year, she sailed on a goodwill mission to Japan.  In 1979, she appears to have been leased to an Australian group, then after 1981, under the management of Burns, Philip & Co Ltd., she commenced cruising from Australia with accommodation for 380 passengers in one class.

SEA WORLD opens at Shekou 1983

On August 17, 1983 MINGHUA arrived at Shekou in Shenzhen, to be berthed at Liuwan Bay, in southern China’s Guangdong province, part of its “special economic zone”. Plans were made for static use with 253 hotel rooms, Chinese and Western restaurants, an English Bar, Bamboo Grove Bar, Music Dance Hall, swimming pool, health center, childrens recreation center and the China Folk Customs Exhibition Center. MINGHUA was renamed SHEKOU SEA WORLD by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.  The ship became part of a plaza of shops, hotels and restaurants in the town center of Shekou, a radical first of its kind for China.

In 1984, MINGHUA was registered under Guangzhou Ocean Shipping and by 1986 the vessel had appeared in registers as an hotel ship.  Finally, by 1991 the name MINGHUA was erased from Lloyd’s Register. During her time at “Sea World Plaza”, the surrounding seaward area was filled in to construct a large golf course. This left the ship entirely landlocked with soil bulldozed right up against her hull. Shrubs were planted along the waterline, while the coastline had been moved a quarter of a mile away and the ship appeared to sitting in a lawn.

MINGHUA, at Shekou, China in November 1999. Photo copyright Martin Cox

Rumours of management difficulties, topped off by a serious fire in the engine room, saw the ship closed to the public in 1998. The exterior of the vessel was maintained but the interior was shuttered and left neglected with a lone watchman living aboard. Despite the name change to SEA WORLD, the letters depicting MINGHUA remained in gold painted letters in both English and in Chinese characters on the bow and stern.

Sea World Plaza, Shekou in 2001. Photo by James Yin.

In November 2001, investigative borings were taken in the soil surrounding the ship, and in a report from the Shenzhen Daily, dated November 19, 2001, it was indicated that the “Shekou Industrial Zone” has begun reconstructing the vessel once again into a recreation center. Plans called for seawater to once again be channeled around the hull, the construction of a 1,000 square metre lobby, a 2,000 square metre cafe-lounge and a large swimming pool. The design called for a 3-D cinema, Western style bars, and a nightclub. The 70 million Yuan investment was intended to be completed by the end of 2002.

Reconstruction surrounded the landlocked MIGHUA, photo 2001 by James Yin

In December 2001, it was announced that Shekou Industrial District would cooperate with LiFengTong Investment Company to develop MINGHUA for the second time. A release noted that after reconstruction, MINGHUA will house a coffee lounge, a movie theater and a bar as well as gymnasium with a pool pool called Sea World Club.

Overview of MINGHUA and Sea World Plaza, Shekou in 2002. Photo by James Yin.

Guangdong News reported in December 2003 that the first phase of the “Sea World Park” renovation was finished and a fireworks display on Christmas Eve marked the occasion as well as the 20th anniversary of the naming of Sea World by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The developer of the project, China Merchants Real Estate Co., which undertook the large scale renovation around the ship, also constructed a 12,000 square meter bar street called Sea World Cafe Bars. The Sea World Cafe Bars consist of brand-name bars, cafes and Western eateries, including Kosmo Coffee, SPR Coffee, Nutaste Coffee, Chinabeach Bar, McCawleys Irish Bar, Italian Bar, Sun Bar, Amigos Restaurant and TCBY, and many more. Further bars, restaurants and shops are planned in the second phase of the renovation project. These were expected to open in the middle of 2004 when the interior hotel renovations inside MINGHUA would also be completed.

MINGHUA and Sea World Plaza, Shekou in 2005. Note the enlarged windows. Photo by David Brandt, courtesy of Tim Brandt.

In November 2005, the Shenzen Daily reported that “Minghua… will return to glory Dec. 16. With millions spent on its new identity, the Minghua now harbors a four-star hotel, a Brazilian BBQ restaurant, a Western restaurant, a wine bar and cigar house, a coffee shop and boutique.”

“Following the two-year transformation project, the Shenzhen tourism authority and investors hope the ship and its surrounding area will become a destination akin to Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong. The area already is already known for its 20 international restaurants, including French, Russian, Indian, Brazilian, German, Southeast Asian and American cuisines.”

Google location image by William Long showing the artificial lake under MINGHUA's stern

Disaster struck the busy plaza on June 11, 2007. A storm brought heavy rain and flooded the more than 20 restaurants on the Sea World square, causing serious economic losses worth tens of millions of Yuan. Xinhua News Agency reported that at least 66 people were  killed in flooding and landslides triggered by heavy rains in the southern part of China and millions were left homeless.

Flood damage in Sea World Plaza, Shekou, June 11 2007. Photo courtesy

Between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Sea World square became a vast lake of water, sand and soil from nearby Mt. Nanshan, as it filled the square as high as four meters, inundating shops and local businesses. Rescuers used boats to locate those stranded in the square. Estimated losses were put between 20 million to 25 million Yuan (US$2.6 million to US$3.2 million).

By 2009, the area appeared to have totally recovered, with bars, restaurants and night clubs once again drawing an international crowd.  The one area less affected by the flood was the old MINGHUA herself, who, for a short time, had returned to her element.

Martin Cox (c) 2010

Special thanks to Peter Knego, James Yin and Tim and David Brandt.


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