Long before summer junk parties became trendy, the traditional boat – efficient, sturdy, multi-masted vessels, with fully battened sails, compartmentalised hull, stabilising lee- and centreboards, stern-mounted rudder – had been a Hong Kong icon, featured in the logo of the old Tourist Association.
It would be easy to assume, as many do, that the English word “junk” comes from Chinese – chuán in Putonghua or Southern Min chûn.
Chinese maritime expeditions are well-represented in historical and popular literature: the earliest descriptions of the ships are found in 2nd-century Chinese accounts; their development and expansion peaking in the 10th to 13th centuries, they are described by 14th-century travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta; and Zheng He’s 15th-century Indian Ocean expeditions had the largest ships and fleets.
The story of the word junk is far more nuanced, though, involving two oft-overlooked actors.
Consider first the Javanese, who were dominant in pre-colonial Southeast Asia’s vibrant maritime trade, from the Srivijaya (7th-12th centuries) to the Majapahit (late 13th-16th centuries) empires.
Their word for “ship”, djong (Old Javanese jong), traces back to an Old Javanese 9th-century inscription; the word had entered Malay as jong by the 15th century. China’s ocean-going tradition in Southeast Asia was relatively new – until the 12th century, most trade between the regions was carried in Southeast Asian vessels. Thereafter, to master southern oceans, ships built in Guangdong and Fujian were based as much on Southeast Asian traditions as on Chinese rivercraft.
The Portuguese, reaching Southeast Asia in the early 16th century, found them dominated by Javanese junks, which were more impressive than Chinese vessels and described in Portuguese accounts as withstanding their cannon and towering over their warships. It is unsurprising, then, that the Portuguese adopted the local word, becoming the Portuguese junco.
Second, the Portuguese influence on English is greatly underestimated. Portuguese (also Portuguese creole) was a lingua franca of Indian Ocean trade for Europeans and locals, becoming so established that other European powers acquired it when subsequently they occupied the region, and numerous Portuguese vocabulary items were borrowed into their languages – thus: English junk.
Junk meaning trash – also in junk food, junk mail – has a different origin: from the Old French jonc (“reed”) to Middle English’s nautical junke, meaning “old rope”, extending to mean old refuse from ships to any discarded items. Ironically, only on the junk fouling Hong Kong’s waters, perhaps, can the Chinese stake some claim.