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Reflections: sea and joons

Wee Kek Koon

 

For many new arrivals to Hong Kong, the junk trip is de rigueur. It’s a great way to take in the city’s majesty and enjoy a day at sea. People usually make do with pretend junks rigged up to look like the real thing, or a large yacht – but in either case it’s still called a “junk trip”.

The word “junk” probably derives from the Portuguese junco: both refer to a traditional Chinese ship with full batten sails. The origins of junco, however, are murkier. It might have been a corruption of the Javanese word for ship, djong, but when one considers that the first syllable of junco rhymes with “boon” rather than “bunk”, there’s a possibility that it has its roots in the Chinese dialect spoken in southern Fujian. In that dialect, the word for ship is joon, with a nasalised “n”. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Portuguese had taken this word from the people of that area as the latter were famous for their seafaring and shipmaking skills.

In the fifth century BC, King Fuchai of Wu founded a shipbuilding plant on Fujian’s Min River. Southern Fujianese and their joon, or junks, plied the seas of Southeast Asia for centuries before the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, and they might even have carried in their hulls another famous Fujian product: teh, or tea.

 

 

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