The last of Hong Kong’s original wooden junk boats is still afloat

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(CNN) — You may not know what a junk boat is, but odds are high that you’ve seen one.

The junk boat — tall and wooden with its three bright-red sails glowing in the Victoria Harbor sunlight — is one of the most iconic visual symbols of Hong Kong.

These vessels are commonly depicted on postcards, retro travel posters, keychains, T-shirts, ceramics and even the logo of the city’s tourism board. But when it comes to finding a junk in present-day Hong Kong, you’ll have to look a lot harder.

Dukling is the last remaining Hong Kong junk boat available for public use. In her first life, Dukling was built in 1955 and was home for a seafaring local family.

She is 18 meters long and weighs 50 tons, offering locals and visitors alike a chance to experience Hong Kong’s man-made and natural beauty from the water.

It can be easy to forget that Hong Kong isn’t a single island — it’s an archipelago. While getting out on the water is a great way to feel the wind on your face on a hot day, it’s also a way to understand the shape and scope of this wildly varied city.

Like so many tourist attractions around the world, Dukling is at risk of closure due to low visitor numbers amid the pandemic. Currently, she is only available for private charters due to Hong Kong’s virus restrictions.

Before coronavirus, there were three sailings a day on weekends with a maximum of 40 passengers each. The Saturday itinerary made multiple stops in Kowloon including Tim Sha Tsui, while Sunday’s went from Central to North Point. The evening sailing was timed for watching the Symphony of Lights, a nightly show where skyscrapers along the harbor light up their windows in fun designs and colors just after dusk.

When the harbor was full of red sails

Libby Chan, assistant curator at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, explains that many of the early residents of Hong Kong came from two groups — those who lived their lives on land (Hakka) and those who lived their lives at sea (Tanka).

As recently as the 1970s, many Hong Kongers lived, worked, ate and slept on board these wooden boats, periodically pulling into typhoon shelters or docks along the city shoreline to sell their wares and stock up on supplies. Beginning in the 1970s, many locals traded in their boat homes for apartments in Hong Kong’s now-famous tall housing estate blocks, giving up their lives at sea for more reliably paid work in factories or offices.

dukling junk boat

The Dukling sails on Victoria Harbour.

Dan Hodge/CNN

But how did junks become synonymous with Hong Kong?

Chan says it all started when Westerners first came to the Pearl River Delta — invariably, they arrived by sea.

“The first group of people who met traders were boat people. You can see lots of depictions of boat people in a very beautiful way by Western artists. Starting from that day, the junk became the logo of Hong Kong.”

Even the name “Dukling” is a mix of modern and classic Hong Kong. Her Chinese name is Ap ling ho: Ap means duck, ling means soul or spirit, and ho is a way of indicating a “the” in front of a name. So a rough English translation could be “the holy duck.” Her original owner thought the front of the boat looked like a duck’s head.

However, If you google “junk boat,” you get pages upon pages of pictures of vessels covered in trash. Search “duckling” and you’ll get cute pics of downy baby ducks. “Duck boat” conjures up those hybrid water-land crafts that tourists take through San Francisco and Seattle.

So the present owner, local businessman Hazen Tang, opted to intentionally misspell the name Dukling in order to better game the search engine machine.

dukling junk boat

Junk boats were once ubiquitous not just in Hong Kong but throughout the Pearl River Delta.

Dan Hodge/CNN

Restoring a historic vessel

Dukling’s history parallels that of Hong Kong’s.

The boat’s original owners, local shrimpers, sold her to a Frenchman who used the boat for recreation, not full-time living. Next, the Frenchman sold Dukling to a British expat who ended up moving back to his homeland and abandoning the boat, where she sank during a typhoon in 2014.

Rescuing Dukling from the South China Sea was a complicated, multi-year ordeal. First, the city had to track down the erstwhile owner in the UK and get permission to bring her up. Then she was repaired in Zhuhai, which required additional permits as the city is part of mainland China. The next step was finding carpenters and repairmen who still know how to care for wooden boats.

Current owner Tang is a Hong Konger who was keen to get her back into local hands — and into Victoria Harbor. His business, HS Travel International Company Limited, is a tourism company based in Hong Kong but with offices throughout Asia.

The finished product is a beautiful, living piece of history that began plying the waters for tourists in 2015. Charlotte Li, director of business development for Dukling’s parent company, says that 80% of the boat is original.

The original wooden wheel is still used to steer the boat, but it’s so heavy that crew members can only operate it for two hours at a time before getting tired.

dukling junk boat

It is traditiional for Dukling crew to pray to the sea goddess Matsu (also spelled Mazu) to ask for luck and safety on each sailing.

Dan Hodge/CNN

Dukling’s makeover didn’t only extend to infrastructure. It turns out that the famous red sails aren’t so red — they’re actually an orangey-brown color that looks more red in the bright Hong Kong sunlight.

There is still a small shrine to the sea goddess Matsu near the front of the boat that crew members bow to and put incense in front of in order to wish for a lucky voyage, but in this era women are allowed to go into this front section of the vessel, while in fishing times it was strictly forbidden.

Besides Dukling, visitors to Hong Kong may spy two similar boats in Victoria Harbour.

Aqualuna is a local tourism company that built two replica junks, both of which will ferry visitors up and down the harbor multiple times per day, most notably at sunset when skyscrapers along the waterfront light up their exteriors for a show.

Though the two companies could see each other as competition, Li insists that there is no rivalry since the owners of Dukling and Aqualuna want the same thing — to preserve the city’s maritime heritage.

“They have the heart and they want to keep junk boats in Victoria Harbour,” she says. “There is no ‘real’ or ‘unreal’.” Li notes that Dukling is only capable of carrying 40 passengers at a time, while both Aqualuna boats can each fit up to 90.

Where to find boat culture today

As Hong Kong continues to grow and more than half its land is protected for city parks and public green spaces, finding spots to build new homes is always a challenge. One of the most common tactics is land reclamation, usually along the harborfront. Like the tourism industry since the pandemic, Victoria Harbour has literally been shrinking.

But while many Tanka people moved onto land, there are still traces of their way of life throughout the city that complement a journey on Dukling.

Hong Kong’s name means fragrant harbor, which was inspired by the red incense burned in temples dedicated to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. (She and Matsu are interchangeable — Matsu means “mother of the sea.”) To this day, dozens of Tin Hau temples dot the islands of the Hong Kong archipelago.

In some neighborhoods where Tanka people resettled — like Tai Po in the New Territories — it is still possible to see bits of the “old way” of life at major events like weddings and funerals. Many boat people communicated through traditional songs, known in English as saltwater songs.

dukling junk boat

Sail colors indicated a family’s status. Wealthier fishing families could afford brown or red fabric sails.

Dan Hodge/CNN

“The dialect of the boat people is different from Cantonese, but they have some overlaps. It’s a very old dialect. It’s a very complex sound and it’s easy to sing,” says Chan.

Some songs were about navigation — best routes to take to avoid storms, for example — while others were about courtship or family. “It’s part of our intangible heritage,” Chan adds.

The Maritime Museum has been able to film some elderly people singing these songs and talking in their dialect in order to ensure this “intangible heritage” is not lost forever. It’s part of the permanent collection of the museum, which is located — appropriately — at Central Piers on Hong Kong Island, the same place where you can board ferries to Lamma Island and Cheung Chau.

Despite all the changes that have taken place in and around Victoria Harbour, the waterway still has room for traditional junk boats — as long as there’s water to sail on, Dukling plans to sail on it.