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Though most westerners are still unfamiliar with them today, Chinese junk boats have played a tremendously important role in shaping our modern world. The junk is a flat-bottomed boat made from lightweight soft woods, which features unique sails reinforced with bamboo slats and a partitioned hull that prevents flooding if one section is breached. These boats are fast, highly maneuverable, and able to be sailed easily upwind. They were once built on massive scales, making them by far the largest boats on the sea during their heyday from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century AD. They were also the first vessels in history to use sternpost rudders, a technology that didn’t reach Europe until several centuries after it became common on Chinese junks.
But innovative rudders weren’t the only impressive ‘World’s First’ achieved by the junk. While most of us know that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, few are aware that in 1405, Admiral Zheng He left on the first of his 7 expeditions around the world. With a fleet of some 300 ships and 30,000 sailors, Zheng He traveled from Hong Kong through the Singapore Straight, along the entire coast of India, into the Gulf of Aden, around the Arabian Peninsula, and down the entire coast of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope before returning home via Indonesia! In contrast to Columbus’ 3-masted 62-foot Santa Maria, Zheng He’s principle junk boat was a whopping 9-masted 400-foot behemoth.
So clearly, the Junk is far from junky. But why, then, has it been so frequently overlooked in our maritime history, even despite having had a major influence on western shipbuilders? And what has become of the junk today?
Well, part of the answer is that the Chinese carefully guarded their design secrets by passing laws forbidding junk boats from being sold to foreigners—and for good reason. From the 2nd century BC until the 1900s, the junk allowed the Chinese to dominate maritime trade routes from Taiwan to Persia, facilitate trade on both rivers and oceans, and exert naval dominance over a vast region of the south Pacific. In fact, it wasn’t until 1846 that a Chinese junk first made it into the hands of a westerner, who made himself rich by premiering it in New York City as a floating museum of Chinese design and culture, and dropping the jaws of countless Americans who had never seen a Chinese person or object in their lives.
But while the junk was at that time, and is still to this day, associated with China as a whole, Hong Kong is the true home of the junk. The iconic red-sailed junk is an important symbol of the city, and has been a constant sight in Victoria Harbour for many centuries. In fact, the junk played an invaluable role in transforming Hong Kong into the thriving seaport hub of commerce and technology it is today. As the city and the boat technology evolved together, flat-bottomed junks connected the intricate network of ports, bays, harbours, and islands in Hong Kong to the vast river network leading into the mainland, while also allowing Hong Kong’s traders to easily reach Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Japan. Hong Kong’s unique geography and landscape contributed too many of the elements that made the junk so innovative for it’s time. Those innovations, in turn, gave Hong Kong a cutting-edge advantage over other seaports in the region.
Today, modern junks (which have changed little in recent centuries) are used throughout China for fishing, commuting, trade, travel, and tourism. In Hong Kong, though, a fleet of just three prominent teak junks remain. Outfitted with custom sound systems, full bars, and even beanbag lounge areas, these junks have become impressive contemporary tourist attractions. Yet at least one historically authentic red-sailed junk remains afloat in Victoria Harbour: the Aqualuna. Keeping the long junk tradition alive, the Aqualuna offers meals, cocktails, and even a ‘Symphony of Lights’ cruise.
So if you ever find yourself in Hong Kong, be sure to visit Victoria Harbour to glimpse the last vestiges of the rich junk boat heritage that shaped our world. Feeling the wind fill the sails and that gorgeous boat dig sleekly into the surf, you’ll understand first-hand exactly why the junk is so special.
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