On Deck With China’s Last Junk Builders, Masters of an Ebbing Craft
PEARL RIVER DELTA, China — As Wong Kin-kao stands on the deck of the traditional Chinese wooden junk he is building in Shenwan, a cluster of fish ponds and factories in the Pearl River Delta of southern China, he shouts to be heard over the shriek of metalwork from steel ships that are being worked on nearby.
“It’s like a piece of art,” said Mr. Wong, a bronzed 54-year-old with stony hands and a quick grin, describing what he loves about the scimitar-shaped boats with the batwing sails that he so rarely gets to build.
A native of the delta region, Mr. Wong from nearby Zhuhai, on China’s mainland, to Macau in 1982. Once there he set up an early incarnation of Yi Hap Shipyard, a builder of wooden junks, which symbolize the delta and the maritime culture that drove China’s early growth.
“Not many people are hand-making wooden junks anymore,” Mr. Wong said. “I wish more people would.”
Within the next few months, the junk, the Dai Cheung Po — also known as the Aqua Luna II — will unfurl its blood-red sails above its high stern and low bow and join its smaller sister, the Cheung Po Tsai, or the Aqua Luna I, already in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, to offer parties and dinners.
再有几个月，“大张保”号木船（英文名Aqua Luna II）的血红色的风帆将在其高船尾和低船头上撑开，驶入香港的维多利亚港，她的姊妹号“张保仔”（英文名Aqua Luna I）已经在那里提供乘船派对和晚宴服务。
It is one of a few of these traditional ships with sails being made by one of the last remaining junk builders in China.
“The building tradition is more or less moribund,” said Stephen Davies, a former director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
Yet the style remains traditional, “insofar as they are still doing what Grandpa did, and before him,” he said.
The new junk is made of Southeast Asian ironwood and teak and cost about $1.3 million to build. It was commissioned by a restaurant group in Hong Kong, which lies about 50 miles east of Shenwan on the edge of the delta where the river’s silty water turns ocean blue.
Also in Hong Kong is the Dukling, a classic, red-sailed junk that dates from 1955. It sank once and was recently refurbished. Since June, its owners have offered tours of Hong Kong’s waters, reflecting how junks today are used mostly for tourism and private parties.
They are three of only a handful of junks that remain in the delta, replaced long ago by stouter wooden fishing vessels without sails, speedboats and huge container ships.
The 19th-century pirate Cheung Po Tsai, or Cheung Po “the Kid,” who crisscrossed the delta pillaging and later joined the Qing dynasty imperial navy, sailed a ship that looked similar to his namesakes, though its sails may have been a yellow woven bamboo, not red. The red color is largely a flourish, Mr. Davies said.
The life of the delta is partly interlaced because of junks, which were once numerous with their fanlike silhouettes, trading down into Southeast Asia and up the coast of China.
The junk — the word’s origins are murky, with Chinese, Malay and Portuguese cited as influences — may have assumed its iconic, curved hull and sails about 1,000 years ago, during the Song dynasty, though written records are scarce.
Captivated by the junk’s beauty, David Yeo, the founder and owner of Aqua Restaurant Group, commissioned a Hong Kong master boat builder, Au Wai, to conceptualize and direct the construction of the Aqua Lunas and to work with Mr. Wong in Shenwan. The first was launched in 2006, and unlike junks of the past, both are motor-powered, and their sails are decorative.
Aqua餐饮集团的创始人和所有者David Yeo被这种帆船的优美形状迷住，他委托香港造船高手Au Wai为“大张保”和“张保仔”做概念设计，并指导它们的建造，建造工作是与神湾的黄球叔合作进行的。“张保仔”是2006年建成下水的，它们与过去的帆船不同，都是电动的，它们的风帆只是装饰而已。
“He has made more commercial junk boats than anyone else in Hong Kong. He is a master of a true art form,” Mr. Yeo said in an email. “An art form that is sadly dying out in Hong Kong today.”
Mr. Au’s life reflects the sweep of delta geography. He is unsure where he was born but knows his father was from Guangdong Province in China, through which the Pearl River runs.
Known as Ah Sin — the honorific and name translate as Dear Magician, for his talent — Mr. Au, 85, grew up poor in Hong Kong.
In his boatyard on Hong Kong Island, in the eastern district of Shau Kei Wan, he points to photographs of wooden ships of all kinds that he has built since being apprenticed to an uncle at the age of 13: simple “walla-walla” motorboats and corporate junks that carry some design elements of the traditional junk but without sails.
Beyond the wood shavings, the harbor glitters in the sun. Fishing boats draw up outside to deliver their catch to the next-door Shau Kei Wan wholesale fish market.
“I was very naughty as a boy, and no one could control me,” Mr. Au said in Cantonese, the local language. Barely a teenager, he sold fish on the streets.
“I did what I wanted. So my family said, ‘You should look for a special skill,’” he said. “An uncle was the owner of a shipyard and also a member of the ship association.”
His son, Au Sai Kit, works with him, but because his son has no children, the family tradition will probably end there.
他的儿子Au Sai Kit和他一起工作，但由于儿子没有孩子，他家的传统可能将不再传下去。
Hardly anyone in Hong Kong is willing to do manual labor, the elder Mr. Au said, so he has to look to places like Shenwan, where he and his son travel regularly to confer with Mr. Wong and his team of workers.
Building a luxury junk is a labor of love, Mr. Au said.
“We take the wood piece by piece, fit them together in a curve, measure each piece and cut it,” he said. Copper nails are used to hammer the hull together. No other metal or artificial materials are used.
It takes about a year to build a traditional junk, Mr. Wong said.
Once junks were made from camphor wood and pine from next-door Fujian Province, said Mr. Davies, the former museum director.
“They were simple to build. That was the genius of the hull design,” he said.
But they had flaws.
“The hull is only joined together by nails, so you can’t have one high sail. You need low-stress rigging,” he said. “They had to keep adding sails to make the junk sail in a straight line.”
The idea of a Chinese junk has been romanticized, Mr. Davies said.
“Junks were brutally hard work. The grunt work — it took 14 members of crew to work the sails. It was pure sweat,” he said.
But Mr. Davies concedes that the traditional Chinese junk remains iconic.
“That sweep down to the bow, the fan in profile, with the masts that create this beautiful arc along the top. The fully battened, standing rigging. There is just a beautiful harmony in looking at it,” he said.