Coasting Past: The last South China coastal trading junks, photographed by William Heering. By Stephen Davies
reviewed by Juan José Morales
27 August 2013 — The iconic image of a sailing junk crossing Victoria Harbour was already firmly planted in my mind before I arrived in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s. Sadly, there were no sailing junks by then; they had disappeared by the end of the previous decade.
Books on old Hong Kong show how ubiquitous this craft was, its role being central to the territory’s main activities of fishing and shipping. But it is above all the junk’s exotic beauty that captured the imagination, matching the landscape and lending it a timeless and tranquil air.
Despite its rich history and enduring symbolic significance, however, the bibliography on the Chinese junk is short, with the few related books long out of print and hard to find. It is not easy to reconstruct the story of the Chinese junk for it was a workaday craft, with enormous variety depending on the function, region, waters or prevalent winds, and there is a scarcity of records, illustrations in particular, concerning their construction.
There is therefore much to celebrate in the new book Coasting Past: The last South China coastal trading junks photographed by William Heering. It fills the current vacuum and is destined to become a standard reference. Published by the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, the book has been thoughtfully conceived around an outstanding selection of 146 color photographs from the late 1970s through the 1980s.
We are fortunate that William Heering, a Danish businessman who has lived in Hong Kong on and off since the early 1960s, set out to photograph these last junks. Armed with a classic Hasselblad 500C, he took his pictures from the land, from another boat and even from helicopter. He captured the junks from every angle, during various sailing maneuvers and at different places, eventually gathering a collection of nearly 2000 photographs from this pre-digital era. Heering has been engaged in shipping and international trade by family tradition; he is therefore well acquainted with the sea. An archetype of the “old China hand”, he fell in love with China’s rich cultural heritage, becoming an art collector and connoisseur. The pictures are testimony to his keen photographic observation and aesthetic sense.
The photographs capture the twilight of an era and afford a last glimpse into the past. The sailing junk was already then an anachronism all the more evident when we see one navigate Hong Kong waters against a dense background of skyscrapers, or when butting through the wash left by larger steel ships. The sight is majestic when the junk is gliding alone through the waves, whereas in the close-ups, when moored to derelict piers, its humble but venerable pedigree becomes manifest.
Beautiful and valuable in their own right, these well-captioned photographs support a larger narrative provided by Stephen Davies, a former British Navy officer, experienced sailor and academic. Davies has been linked to Hong Kong since 1947, was founding director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and is one of the rare Westerners with a sound knowledge of Chinese maritime history.
The result is a full and updated account of theSouth China coastal junk as well as a valuable summary on the Chinese craft’s main features and developments, and by extension interesting insights on China’s history and its relation to world of navigation.
Although those familiar with sailing and its terminology will enjoy the book, it is written with the general reader in mind. Davies is determined to get the concepts clear, so it is hardly necessary to consult the dictionary. Not a light read perhaps, but nevertheless an educational one as the chapters take us through the sails, rigging, the steering system, hull construction, the junks’ crews and where they sailed.
The sail is the junk’s most distinctive feature, a “cultural icon”, described by Davies as “fully battened balanced lug sails—all manner of irregular quadrilaterals.” Guangdong junks, those that were prevalent in Hong Kong waters, are distinguished by the “dramatic curvature of the leech (rear end) of the sail—called the roach,” whereas northern junks the book includes examples from Nanjing and Shanghai—have “rectangular tall and narrow sails to catch the lighter inland wind above the river banks.” As the author explains, a fully battened sail has its advantages: in older times adapted to sails made of bamboo or rattan mats, in later days they allowed for lighter sailcloth, and this is the reason why we can see junks with badly tattered sails, patched, or even with holes, that still work.
Another feature of the traditional junk is its balanced proportions—which are what distinguish it from the hybrids that now and then try to appeal to tourists. The Cantonese shipwrights’ rule of thumb concerning size and proportions can be appreciated from the photographs.
Davies discusses shipbuilding techniques, remarkable for their “relative economy and simplicity resulting in a light but strong vessel that ensured its long working life well into the 20th century.” Once again, this everyday craft reveals both the proverbial ingenuity of the Chinese people as well as the economy and efficiency achieved through a process of trial and error, a process which nevertheless shows foreign influence: although the hull is stereotyped with a flat bow and flat stern, Davies notes a variety of gradual borrowings from the West, most noticeable at the end of this craft on the sharper cutwater and the curved quarters.
Davies is particularly at home when painstakingly explaining the logic behind the construction and the practicalities: the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. He places emphasis on the key structural element of the hull bulkheads, those watertight compartments that are a genuine Chinese invention, contribution to seamanship and the safety of the boat and crewmen. In fact, the construction of modern naval steel ships follows the same rationale. Even the description of apparently dry technicalities reveals the author’s concealed good humor that pervades the whole book and makes it such enjoyable read.
Contrary to popular lore, the centered rudder or central steering system at the stern cannot be considered a Chinese invention, for it was also known in the Middle East and Western Europe. In addition, Davies notes that the double quarter rudder—one of each side—used in Europe for centuries was as efficient at the centerline rudder. Instead, it is just that it was in China that the centered rudder first became a general feature.
Why did this millenium-old craft last well into the 20th century with so little evolution? For a number of complex reasons that are still disputed, China turned her back to the sea in the 15th century. As a result, there was little incentive for innovation in seagoing vessels and the Chinese kept with tradition; as Stephen Davies puts it, “junks were not designed to sail against the wind, nor in general did they.”
A former President of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, Juan José Morales has degrees from universities in Spain, Australia, Hong Kong and China
Coasting Past: The last South China coastal trading junks, Stephen Davies (Hong Kong Maritime Museum, March 2013)
© 2013 The Asian Review of Books.