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HK Magazine Archive

Why Do Hong Kong’s Traditional Junk Boats Have Red Sails?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 October, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:51pm

What better evocation of Hong Kong than the red-sailed junk, plying its trade across the greatest harbor in the world? The sun is setting and its orange rays catch on red canvas, flaring into brilliant spots of warm, loving light against a deep blue sea.

But why are they that vivid scarlet, so effective against the blues of the city, the skyline, and the falling dusk? Is it something to do with the fact that red is such an auspicious color?

Well, only slightly. Junks have what’s known as “battened” sails—meaning that they are strengthened with spines of bamboo running through them to provide stability. Sails carry a large surface area to catch as much wind as possible, but this method of sectioning the sail means that small rips and tears won’t render the whole thing useless—a pretty useful attribute when you’re fighting typhoons all through the rainy months.

Before the introduction of cloth and canvas, junk sails were originally made from mats of woven grass or bamboo. But a life at sea is pretty tough on organic matter, and mildew and rot would easily set in. The last thing you want at sea is to discover that your sail’s fallen apart.

The reddish-brown color of the traditional junk sail is a result of an additive, what’s known as “tanbark.” The woven grass (then later canvas) sails were “tanned” to protect them from the elements—dipped in tannins extracted from the bark of oak trees. This “tanbark” had been ground down into a rich red-brown powder to extract as much tannin as possible, and the powder stained the sails their characteristic color.

Of course, nowadays tanbark sails are an affectation, not an essential part of survival at sea. The junks that meander around the harbor these days—the Aqua Luna (aqualuna.com.hk, 2116-8821) and the recently relaunched Duk Ling (dukling.com.hk, 2368-8885) use motors, not wind, to power their way. Their cargo is people, not goods.

And so their tanbark sails are a vivid, spotless and very auspicious red. They may not have the worn-out charm of the thousands of junks which flitted around Hong Kong in times gone by—but they do have the pleasant side effect of looking very beautiful indeed when the sun sets over the South China Sea.