Labour of love sees Fujian junk back on the seas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong is a city constantly looking forward with very little time for the past, so it was a big surprise to see an authentic Fujian junk called the Longhai moored at Aberdeen Boat Club.

It was a genuine Fujian province junk which was built in the early 1980s in Fujian by an American sailing enthusiast, and was the first junk of its kind to be built there since the 1960s.

For centuries Fujian inhabitants were the mariners of China and their boats were always the most seaworthy. The Taiwan Strait into which they regularly ventured is notoriously dangerous, so their boats had to be up to the job and Longhai proved to be just as dependable.

The name Longhai translates as Dragon Sea in English, the same name as the town of Longhai where the boat was built. The junk was eventually bought by Hong Kong's Graeme Morris, who took on the task of restoring it to its former glory.

'Initially a number of old-timers were brought out of retirement to supervise its construction in Fujian in the 1980s,' Morris explained.

'The sails were sown by old women in a huge hall and were made out light muslin, stained with pig's blood. It becomes a very heavy canvas after that and very durable. The previous American owner was such a stickler for tradition that he didn't even use nylon ropes on the junk.'

Unfortunately by the time Morris got hold of Longhai, the sails were rotten. But he used the old sails as a guide and had new ones made from terylene. Morris had to go for practicality over tradition as he had to sail the vessel across the South China sea from the Philippines to Hong Kong last week.

The crossing took five days and two hours, which was very fast. It would have been good going for a modern yacht.

Morris took ownership of the junk in 2003 and has been restoring it in the Philippines since then. He said it has taken years to complete because it was a total rebuild.

'There's not much of the original wood left. Most of the frames have been worked on and all the planks have been changed,' he said. 'But she is still a traditional Fujian trading junk.'

You'd have thought Morris, who lives on Lantau Island and is a boat restorer, would get a good price for the junk now, but he admitted that most traditionally wooden boats are a headache as they require constant maintenance - not that he is in the market to sell.

'I'm not sure if it's even worth all the money that's been spent restoring it, probably not. But it's not the point. It's a bit of a mission,' he said.

'You wouldn't go into something like this purely as a business investment, in fact it would be one of the most foolish investments you could come up with.' There's no doubt it's a labour of love and as far as Morris knows, Longhai is the only fully operational traditional Fujian trading junk sailing today.

After the journey from the Philippines, the junk was in need of some work. Morris hopes to moor the boat off Cheung Chau while they do some repairs. 'We had a great crossing over from the Philippines but now Longhai needs some TLC. She deserves it,' he said.