When thinking of Hong Kong you might immediately envision a proud junk boat presiding over the waters of Victoria Harbour,
crimson sails towering high. This impressive ship has become an icon of the city, first appearing in China during the Han
Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).
Junk boats are small, shallow-hulled vessels with one or two masts. In the past they were most commonly used for trade in China and other parts of Southeast Asia. Their narrow shape allowing them to glide quickly across the water, while their flat bottom made it possible to dock in shallow waters. The reddish-brown hue of the junk’s sails, now a symbol of Asian maritime heritage, originated from the earliest junk sails. These sails were made from woven grass and had to be dipped in tannins in order to be toughened up, which gave it this red colour.
As time progressed, junks became larger and more masts were added. During the Song Dynasty (950-1276) junks featured four masts and were essential to the nation’s trade and commerce. Later on, during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), junks were incorporated into the army, giving rise to a formidable navy. Legendary seafarer, Admiral Zheng He, voyaged with the imperial Ming navy all the way to India, Arabia, and Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, trading in ivory and spices and establishing diplomatic ties with foreigners, commanding an impressive armada of 30,000 sailors and over 300 ships.
One of the most notable junks was the Keying, a three-masted, 800-ton Foochow Chinese trading junk which sailed from China around the Cape of Good Hope to the United States and Britain between 1846 and 1848. It was purchased in August 1846 by British businessmen in Hong Kong, a transaction which defied a Chinese law prohibiting the sale of Chinese ships to foreigners. Manned by 12 British and 30 Chinese sailors, the Keying was the first Chinese junk to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and remains a testament to China’s proud maritime past.