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Sail the harbour in a piece of history

A beloved symbol of Hong Kong, the junk boat (main picture and above) is now used almost exclusively for pleasure and relaxation. These days, the vessel usually sports three masts, which still provide a spectacular sight (below).
A beloved symbol of Hong Kong, the junk boat (above) is now used almost exclusively for pleasure and relaxationPHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL
A beloved symbol of Hong Kong, the junk boat (main picture and above) is now used almost exclusively for pleasure and relaxation. These days, the vessel usually sports three masts, which still provide a spectacular sight (below).
A beloved symbol of Hong Kong, the junk boat (above) is now used almost exclusively for pleasure and relaxationPHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

Silhouetted against the sky, as a gentle twilight falls over Victoria Harbour, the vessel looks majestic.

Its design is so ancient, beautiful and simple that it distracts me from the spectacle rising above it - the Hong Kong skyline.

Yet a case can be made that the traditional Chinese junk boat is just as iconic as the skyscrapers here.

These ships were weapons of war, tools of pirates, and vessels of colonisation. But almost 2,000 years after they first emerged, junk boats are now a beloved symbol of Hong Kong used almost exclusively for pleasure and relaxation.

Many Singaporeans could soon be sailing Victoria Harbour on a junk boat, thanks to the new travel bubble, which will allow movement between the two cities without the need for tourists to quarantine themselves.

It was in preparation for my own boat ride that I began to delve into the story of the junk.

In the boating world, they are considered one of the most remarkable vessels ever crafted.

When European sailors first came across these Chinese boats in the 13th century, they were surprised at their sophisticated and innovative designs. By that stage, junk boats had been perfected by the Chinese for over 1,000 years.

The earliest records of junk boats have been traced back to the second century, during China's Han Dynasty.

Meanwhile, historians have discovered Chinese texts from the third century, which describe enormous junk boats capable of transporting more than 500 people and sailing as far as the Middle East.

But it was during the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD) that China's maritime trade took off, greatly increasing the importance of these ships.

Fleets plied the trade routes which connected southern China with regional powers like Korea and Japan, as well as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and East Africa.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Scoot operate direct flights between Singapore and Hong Kong.

    Junk boat cruises depart from locations all over Hong Kong. The most popular cruises are sunset or night-time pleasure rides in Victoria Harbour, which allow guests to see the city's renowned skyline from a unique vantage point.

    These cruises, which typically range from 45 minutes to two hours, mostly start and finish at Kowloon Public Pier and Central Pier on Hong Kong Island.

    Tourists can also join longer, chartered cruises that venture further afield, exploring the islands between Hong Kong and Macau.

A beloved symbol of Hong Kong, the junk boat (main picture and above) is now used almost exclusively for pleasure and relaxation. These days, the vessel usually sports three masts, which still provide a spectacular sight (below).
These days, the vessel usually sports three masts, which still provide a spectacular sight (above). PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

Many of these boats came in and out of the huge Song Dynasty sea port of Guangzhou, about 150km north-west of Hong Kong.

By that point, in the 13th century, the Chinese had honed the design of the junks. They were notable for their tall sterns, extended bows and the use of as many as five masts of different sizes.

These sails could be altered in shape at the tug of a rope, contracting or spreading out, which made junk boats a highly versatile vessel. The sails also could be adjusted significantly based on wind strength and direction.

Attributes such as these sails, and the extremely strong hulls, impressed the first Western sailors to encounter them.

So effective were junk boats at covering vast distances and hauling heavy loads that from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) onwards, they were used by pirates in the South China Sea and by Chinese military forces.

They had been altered to feature as many as nine masts, further enhancing their speed and agility at sea. This made them deadly in battle.

A giant fleet of several hundred junk boats, commanded by Chinese pirate Zheng Chenggong, famously besieged Dutch Taiwan in 1661 and brought it under Chinese control.

Junk boats were later key tools during the first and second Opium Wars between China's Qing Dynasty and the British in the mid-1800s.

By using these Chinese vessels, Britain was able to gain control over Hong Kong. That history underlines the junk boat's status as an icon of a city shaped by both the Chinese and the British.

Coincidentally, it was a group of English tourists who was sitting next to me as our pleasure cruise began.

As the skyline started to glow, I overheard one of them teaching his friend the history of junk boats.

He was well read, pointing out how our vessel had only three masts, which is now the standard number used on the junk boats that ply this harbour.

The middle-aged man also made a claim which I then confirmed via my smartphone: The junk boat is endangered.

Historically, it was made by master craftsmen, who mentored younger workers. Now, however, there are few such skilled tradesmen left to pass on the secrets of junk construction.

The situation is of such concern that in 2010, Unesco, the global heritage protection body, listed junk boat technology as being "in need of urgent safeguarding".

Yet, as I stood on the deck of our junk boat, looking at Hong Kong's nest of skyscrapers, I could not help but think it is remarkable these vessels are still in operation. How many 2,000-year-old modes of transport remain in use?

The junk boat has survived countless wars, natural disasters, economic collapses and deadly disease outbreaks, like the coronavirus pandemic. Its beauty and resilience convince me that it will not disappear from the waters of Hong Kong any time soon.

• The writer is an Australian journalist and photographer who splits his time between Ireland and Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2020, with the headline 'Sail the harbour in a piece of history'. Print Edition | Subscribe