Monday, December 7, 2009

Boats on the Water

Image of a neon-lit 'Chinese Junk' on the water for the opening of the 2009 East Asian Games in Hong KongDear Gentle Reader,

The other day your humble scribe looked up and out the window and, amidst a low-hanging fog, saw a mysterious boat cruising into Hong Kong harbour...

And this image shows, possibly, ten percent of the flotilla which your humble scribe saw.

Image of an armada of neon-lit 'Chinese Junks' on the water for the opening of the 2009 East Asian Games in Hong Kong

This fleet came into Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, to celebrate the opening of the 2009 East Asian Games; it was the on-water portion of a spectacular laser, lights, and fireworks show to open the East Asian Games.

These junks were representative of one of two Hong Kong-style junks that used to be very common in the seas of East Asia, especially around Hong Kong.

The term junk for a vessel is, contrary to accepted popular wisdom, not a pejorative, colonial term for Asian boats.

The name 'junk', for these ocean-going vessels, is derived from an old Javanese word, 'jong', which described a large shipping vessel; it described the class of Chinese merchant vessels which date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).

First, a digression on Java...

Java is an old kingdom whose people speak Javanese.

The Kingdom of Java was centred on the island of Java which is now a part of Indonesia.

Jakarta, the capital of modern Indonesia, is located on the island of Java which happens to be the 13th largest island on the planet.

Java is 67% of the size of Great Britain by land area (as in England, Wales, and the bulk of Scotland).

Of course, in 2005, the island of Java, alone, had a population of approximately 124 million people while Great Britain had approximately 58.5 million people.

To put this in context for my American friends, the island of Java, alone, by area, is bigger than Louisiana, Alabama, or Arkansas.

Java is almost the exact same size as North Carolina and is a bit smaller than New York state.

And Java had 124 million people in 2005 which was almost 42% of the population of the USA in 2005.

Java has had a long, distinguished history befitting its relative size and regional impact.

The same can be said of junks.

Junks have cruised the waters of Asia for over two thousand years.

In the early 15th century, Venetian galleys carried around 50 tons of cargo per galley.

At the same time Zheng He's treasure junks carried two thousand tons of cargo, each, on their trips to Hormuz and to India.

There are vast differences in the scale that junks were built to, and there were many regional variations on the junk, fine-tuned over the centuries for local conditions, but, the basic design lasted for millenia because it worked.

Hong Kong had two regional junk styles, fishing junks and trading junks.

Most junks had square sails that would be affixed to numerous masts and stiffened with bamboo battens.

These relatively rigid sails were easily reefed and adjusted.

Image of many neon-lit 'Chinese Junks' on the water for the opening of the 2009 East Asian Games in Hong KongHong Kong fishing junks were the one notable exception in sail design. They didn't have a square sail like all the other junks; they had the readily identifiable sail shape that we see here.

Ivan Donnelly, in his 1924 classic "Chinese Junks and other native craft", when writing about 'Hongkong Fishers' notes that:
The rake of the masts and the well rounded shoulder of the leech of the sail are distinctions by which one can easily distinguish this type of junk at sea.
As an added aid to identification, these festive 'junks' used in the opening ceremonies of the East Asian Games were also festooned with neon blue fishes.

Fishes not only help you note that these are fishing junks, but fishes also symbolize wealth and plenty, which is why one always includes steamed, whole fish in the menu to conclude successful business transactions and for other celebratory dinners.

And, presumably, each participating country in the games was hoping for a haul of gold, silver, and bronze as they showcased the athletic wealth of their country's youth.

Hong Kong loves colour and light and display and these gaudy, bright junks, recreated with neon lights arranged on modern fishing vessels, provided heady colours, from afar, on the water at night.

Further, junks are a symbol of water-going traders and of empire, both mercantile and political, throughout East Asia.

So, it made sense that they were used in the light show put on by the hosts...Hong Kong, China.

With the ubiquity of diesel motors, however, no one, in Hong Kong, uses wind-powered junks any more.

Now they are just ghosts.

Memories of a forgotten time.

And, as I thought that, the bright red sails and blue fishes of the junks disappeared, to be replaced by the ghostly white outlines of square junk sails reefed into lateen sails.

Image of a neon-lit 'Chinese Junk' transformed into a ghostly white junk on the water for the opening of the 2009 East Asian Games in Hong Kong

And then the junks turned and sailed out of sight, and out of the marine light show site.

And with that, I depart until Wednesday, too.


Click to hear '龍船 (The Dragon Boat)' by 瞿冰心 (Kui Bing-Sum, Yangqin)

Sadly, I cannot find an online site to buy this cd or this mp3. This is offered as a sample for you to scour your record stores for, or ask them to find it for you.


debra said...

Boats outlined in colored lights silently gliding across the water would have been spectacular.

Teresa said...

Love the post, Chris.

I'm reading 1434 about how the Chinese in their junks made it to Italy and sparked the Renaissance. It's on the bottom of the pile, so I'm kind of bogged down as this is final papers week to be followed by final exams week, but there is always winter vacation!!!

This is short because I have to get one final paper ready for the writing workshop tonight.


Fireblossom said...

You give junk(s) a good name! ;-)

Cloudia said...

What a delightful post today Scribe!

I loved oooing and ahhing over the magical craft your described so dreamily.

Drift on, Dream Boats :-)


Comfort Spiral

Cloudia said...


Sung to the tune of:
"Smoke on the Water"

jjdebenedictis said...

Off-topic friend is off-topic.

Could you email your address to us to make sure we have the correct one? There may be some postcards in your future. :)

Junosmom said...

Beautiful boats.

Sepiru Chris said...

Whew. Busy week! But, let me say thanks to everyone who read and, especially, to everyone who commented! You are each better than I!

Dear Debra,

It was pretty spectacular. The light show and laser light show (coordinated from atop numerous towering skyscrapers and from lower vantages, as well) and fireworks exhibitions were great, too. But the boats took me by surprise.

Dear Teresa,

I am glad that you loved it. Hmm. I have read Gavin Menzie's 1421 and it is an interesting read, but is largely taken with more than a few grains of salt.

I have not read 1434.

You'll have to tell me what you think of it.

Every historian and every professional explorer or adventurer that I know, however, is quite unkind to the larger theories of Mr. Menzies...

Dear Fireblossom,

I am still chuckling over Ed's Hill for Everest.

That really is clever.

And I thank you, mightily (though also tiredly--not enough sleep this week).

Dear Cloudia,

I could well imagine these boats mooring in your world, Cloudia.

Especially as it would take a rather mystical, magical boat to make it through the 12 meter waves of the surf in Hawaii these days, no?

Send us a pick of Miss Kitty hanging ten... (!)

I am glad that you liked it. And now I have two earworms. (You give love a bad name, from Fireblossom, and Smoke on the Water, from you!) :)

Dear OxyJen,

Travel is never off-topic. And digressions are always on the menu with me. Have a fantastic time on your trip. We send love to you both.

Dear Junosmom,

With beautiful coats of colours! When will you start putting colours on the coats of your horses? Or, better yet, the chickens? Rather than dyeing the eggs at Easter could you imagine the consternation which the Opossums would have if you dyed the chickens and painted big eyes on them?

I love the idea! It could be an art project... send pictures!

Tschuess, all,

wordvamp said...

This is gorgeous. I love how you have combined the photos with the history.

Teresa said...

Dear Chris,

1434 came recommended by my mom's second cousin's husband who is a professor emeritus at Harvard. He is also Chinese. I have had to put it to the side to focus on school work. I'll let you know in January. I know that it is controversial, but I believe that is part of the fun...

murat11 said...

Love the post and the pictures. Thank you for them. I would have loved to look up and see the ghost boats out my window: what a blessing.

Once walked out of a restaurant here in Tres Leches, Christmastide, looked to my left down the street and saw too people decked out in white Christmas lights, head to toe, drinking champagne. Such are life's blessings.

Loch Rob said...

While not usually junks, I often see neon adorned boats cruising up and down the river between Shanghai and Pudong. Especially nice while having a good German meal and some nice stout along the river at Pauliners. Interesting and informative read.