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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Hong Kong’s junk boats

By Catharina Cheung 30 March 2021

Header image courtesy of @chopsticksontheloose (via Instagram)

One of Hong Kong’s most iconic sights is of an old-school, wooden boat sailing serenely in Victoria Harbour with the cityscape in the background, sunlight glowing gorgeously through its bright red sails. This is a junk boat, but not the kind that you would hire in the summer to get tanned and drunk on! 

Such boats have long been a part of the city—in fact, it is so representative that the Hong Kong Tourism Board has a red junk boat as its logo—but there are not many left puttering about the harbour now. Here is a brief history of these beautiful vessels, which are so emblematic of Hong Kong that they deserve to be remembered.

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Photo: Lai Afong (via Wikimedia Commons)

A brief history

A junk boat is a Chinese sailing ship that has fully battened sails, meaning that there are several horizontal poles spanning the full width of the sail, as opposed to the Bermuda rig, which is more commonly seen on Western sailboats. 

Historians believe that junk boats date back to the Han dynasty, inspired by Austronesian ship designs, though these were not true ocean-voyaging vessels until the tenth century, when China used them for naval trading. Flat-bottomed riverboats evolved into Northern Chinese junks, which had flat bottoms, no keel, and no frame, whereas sea-faring Austronesian-inspired boats became Southern Chinese junks, which are V-shaped, with a keel, and a double-ended hull.

A Chinese junk comes in the form of various types of coastal or river vessels, though they were usually cargo ships, pleasure boats, or houseboats. A junk can be further categorised as a catboat (with a single mast and sail), a yawl (with a mainmast and a much smaller mizzen mast), or several other types, depending on the configuration of its sailing rigs. The ones that we’re used to seeing in photos of Hong Kong junks is the ship rig, which consists of three masts and is the configuration used on the largest sailing crafts.

The peak of junk boats

It was during the Song dynasty in the tenth century that Chinese junks came into their own, adopting the Malaysian junk sail and becoming the backbone of the military and mercantile fleets of the Song and Yuan dynasties. 

The largest junks were said to be able to carry 500 to 600 men, and their sizes were documented and corroborated by travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. But the largest junk ships ever built were said to be Admiral Zheng He’s treasure ships, used during expeditions in the Indian Ocean during the Ming dynasty in the fifteenth century. According to British sinologist and historian Joseph Needham, the biggest of these junks measured a whopping 440 feet by 180 feet, though other historians and engineers have expressed doubts that such dimensions were even feasible.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Chinese junks were mostly used for trade, especially in voyages to Japan and Southeast Asian countries. A large junk named the Keying sailed from China to the United States and England via the Cape of Good Hope between 1846 to 1848, berthing on the River Thames and entrancing the British public, including Charles Dickens. 

Junks began entering western waters more frequently in the eighteenth century, and those equipped with naval weapons were called armed junks. In the First and Second Opium Wars, Western forces fought several naval battles with such armed junks.

The interesting name it is most known by had most likely evolved from the Dutch “jonk” or the Spanish and Portuguese “junco,” which were both terms used during the colonial period to refer to any medium- to large-sized ship, regardless of whether or not they had the junk rig that is so immediately recognisable.

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Photo: @scottish_swan (via Instagram)

Junks in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, traditional Chinese junks were never involved in anything as dramatic as warfare, and were mostly just used for fishing or transport. Most of Hong Kong’s early residents were either Cantonese and Hakka, who led lives on land, or Tanka, a seafaring folk whose livelihoods depend on the sea. The latter group of people lived in junk boats on the water, with the colours of the sails supposedly denoting the family’s wealth—red, as one might imagine of the auspicious Chinese colour, signified the wealthiest boat people.

According to a report issued in 1729, it seems there was a fair bit of discrimination going on between the landlubbers and sea-dwellers, as the Hakka people didn’t like the Tanka settling on-shore, the Tanka for the most part simply chose not to interact much the others, and the ethnic groups did not intermarry. 

As Hong Kong developed, the water and fishing grounds nearby were increasingly reclaimed or polluted, and the Tanka—many of whom only owned small junks which cannot go too far out to sea—ended up clustered in bays, gathering into floating villages. Some of these floating village settlements were situated in Aberdeen, Cheung Chau, Tai O, Shau Kei Wan, and several other seaside locations. Nevertheless, these ethnic groups were all considered Hongkongers, and eventually ended up mixing over the years.

Photo: @sabeenshkin (via Instagram)

Up until the 1960s and 1970s, junks were still very commonly seen in Victoria Harbour, though they slowly began being phased out by faster modes of transport. From the 1970s onwards, Tanka people began choosing to give up their junk boat homes in favour of apartments in housing estates and more reliable income. 

These days, only small pockets of local waters still have Tanka people living on their houseboats. The typhoon shelter in between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau is one such community, though visitors would be hard-pressed to find an authentic junk boat still present. Without the popularised concept of sailing as a pastime in Hong Kong, junks ended up getting lost at sea in our treacherously modernised waters.

Our last authentic junk

It is likely that the Dukling is Hong Kong’s last authentic junk boat, and certainly the only one that is available for the public to board and experience—there are others that look like traditional junks such as the Aqua Luna, but these are actually replica boats. 

The Dukling was built in 1955, a traditional three-mast, wooden Chinese junk measuring 18 metres and weighing 50 tonnes. It used to be the home of a Tanka fisherman who lived on the boat with his family and, after passing through three owners, has been used as a vessel for tours along Victoria Harbour since the 1980s.

Known as the “鴨靈號” (aap3 ling4 hou6) in Cantonese, its Chinese name roughly translates to “the Blessed Duck,” so its current owner dubbed it the Dukling in a play on words. On-board this boat, there is also a statue of the sea goddess Mazu, who the crew still pray to in hopes of safe voyages. Its wheel is still the original artefact and is apparently so heavy that the crew only steer the boat in two-hour slots.

The Dukling has been catering mainly to tourists with English tours over the years, but with the coronavirus pandemic putting a stopper in foreign travel, they have had to switch up strategies to preserve at least some business—they now offer more tours in Cantonese and sail to more remote locations in the territories to pique the interest of local Hong Kong residents.

As mentioned above, there are also modern junks for those who wish to experience what being on a traditional boat is like. The Aqua Luna is also known as the 張保仔” (zoeng1 bou2 zai2) in Cantonese, named after Cheung Po Tsai, the famous Hong Kong pirate of the nineteenth century. This can give visitors a glimpse of voyaging on a three-sail junk, but they are purely for decoration as the boat itself is motorised. 

There is also the Aqua Luna II, which is newer, bigger, and boasts blue and white sails with an imperial dragon motif instead of the distinctive red. Under the supervision of one of Hong Kong’s master shipwrights, the Aqua Luna II was impressively built without a single nail.

We’d obviously recommend going for a cruise on the Dukling for an OG junk experience as this is the last remaining real McCoy, but if you’d prefer a newer ride along Hong Kong’s waters in a vessel that pays tribute to the originals, then the Aqua Luna will also make for very stylish sailing. Either way, enjoy the fact that you’re traversing the waters on a vessel that epitomises the culture of an entire group of ethnic Hong Kong people!

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Catharina Cheung

Former senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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