The Last Junks of Hong Kong
A sailing junk crossing Victoria Harbour was already 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 late 1980s. Browsing books on old Hong Kong one realises how ubiquitous this craft was, its role being central to the territory’s main activities of fishing and shipping. Above all, it was the junk’s exotic beauty that captured our imagination, matching the landscape and lending to it a timeless and peaceful air. However, despite its rich history and enduring symbolic significance, 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 an enormous variety depending on the function, region, waters or prevalent winds, and there is a scarcity of records, in particular concerning its construction.
For all the reasons now we celebrate a new book destined to fill a vacuum and to become standard reference: Coasting Past: The last South China coastal trading junks photographed by William Heering, written by Stephen Davies. Published jointly by the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and Hans Michael Jebsen, the book has been thoughtfully conceived around an outstanding selection of 146 colour photographs taken from the late 1970s through the 1980s. All the pictures are well captioned, with date and location, and perfectly coordinated with the main text. The book provides the fullest and most updated account on the South China coastal junk, a valuable summary of the Chinese crafts’ main features and developments, and it also provides interesting insights on China’s true achievements in the history of navigation.
It was our luck that William Heering, a Danish businessman who has lived in Hong Kong on and off since the early sixties, 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, at different sailing maneuvers and at different places, eventually gathering a collection of nearly 2000 photographs, all before the digital era. Heering has been engaged in shipping and international trade by family tradition; he is therefore well acquainted with the sea. An “old-China hand”, he fell in love with China’s rich cultural heritage, becoming an art collector and connoisseur. The pictures are thus testimony of the photographer’s keen observation and his highly aesthetic sense of appreciation.
The photographs capture the twilight of an era and they afford a last glimpse to the past. This sailing junk was already then an anachronism. An anachronism made all the more evident when we see it 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 solitary through the waves, whereas in the close-ups, when moored to the derelict piers, we realise its humble but millennium-old pedigree.
Beautiful and valuable on their own right, these photographs were important to support a larger narrative and this has been 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 few Westerners with a sound knowledge of Chinese maritime history.
Although those familiar with sailing and its terminology will enjoy the most, the book is written bearing in mind the general reader. The author is determined to get the concepts clear, so that it is hardly necessary to consult the dictionary. Not a light reading but a worthy learning experience nonetheless as the chapters take us through the sails, the rig, the steering system, the hull’s construction, the crew or the junk’s routes.
The sail is the junk’s most distinctive feature, a “cultural icon”, described as “fully battened balanced lug sails ─ all manner of irregular quadrilaterals.” Our Guangdong junks are distinguished by the “dramatic curvature of the leech (rear end) of the sail – called the roach”. Whereas the northern junks ─we see 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.
We learn on shipbuilding techniques, remarkable by “its 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 craft reveals the proverbial ingenuity of the Chinese people in a process of trial and error, yet it is not completely impervious to foreign influence: Although the hull is stereotyped with a flat bow and flat stern, we are warned to appreciate the variety and the gradual borrowings from the West, most noticeable at the end of this craft on the sharper cutwater and the curved quarters.
Stephen Davies is really at home when painstakingly explaining the logic behind the construction and the practicalities, the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. There is an emphasis on the key structural element of the hull bulkheads, those watertight compartments genuine Chinese invention, contribution to seamanship and the safety of the boat and crewmen. In fact, the modern naval steel ship construction follows the same rationale. Even when describing these technicalities we perceive the author’s concealed good humour that pervades the whole book and makes it such enjoyable read.
Another relevant feature of our junk is its balanced proportion ─ what distinguishes it from the hybrids that now and then try to appeal to the tourists at the harbour. The Cantonese shipwrights’ rule of thumb concerning size and proportions can actually be appreciated looking at the photographs themselves, another contribution of this collection.
Interestingly, contrary to popular lore, we learn that the centered rudder or central steering system at the stern cannot be considered a Chinese invention, as it was also known in the Middle East and Western Europe. While the double quarter rudder ─ one of each side ─ used in Europe for centuries was as efficient at the centerline rudder, we are also told. Simply, it was in China were the centered rudder became earlier a general feature. I confess I got lost here, when reading on the steering system and other control surfaces ─ including the leeboards, the Chinese being the first recorded sailors to use it. Entirely my fault, for mechanics is not my forte. I shall give the chapter another try.
Why this millenium-old craft lasted well into the 20th century with so little evolution? Throughout the book there are interesting insights on China’s history and the role of navigation. The reasons why China turned her back to the sea from the 15th century are complex and still debatable. It is a fact that the inner network of navigable rivers, lakes and canals was apparently sufficient to serve a self-contained world; while the administration, taxation and policing of the long coast proved too difficult ─ a neglect that in turn led to piracy. The truth is that there were no incentives for innovation in the craft and the Chinese kept the tradition; as Stephen Davies puts it, “junks were not designed to sail against the wind, nor in general did they.”
Photographer and writer were uniquely placed to give this fitting tribute to the South China junk, or, in a way, our junk was waiting for them to gain inmortality. As it is acknowledged, this enterprise would not have been possible without the support of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, its steering helmsman Anthony Harding and Hans Michael Jebsen.
Coasting Past: The last South China coastal trading junks photographed by William Heering can be purchased at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, in its new dramatic venue at Central Pier 8.