An Urgent Request for Help
By Dione Chen
The Free China is a historic century-old Chinese sailing vessel on the verge of extinction. An authentic Fujian junk used during the first half of the 20th century to transport fish and contraband, the Free China has a rich and colorful past. The junk is possibly the oldest Chinese wooden sailing vessel of operable condition in existence—and the last of its kind.
The Free China about to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge (Photo courtesy of The Oakland Tribune).
The Free China junk made international headlines in 1955 when an inexperienced crew of five Chinese fishermen and one American diplomat beat the odds to make a transpacific voyage from Taiwan to San Francisco. The voyage was an inspiring story of chutzpah, determination, adventure and spirit that was a source of great pride by Chinese on both sides of the Pacific, and significant interest by mariners and the general public in America.
Since its arrival in San Francisco, the Free China has fallen upon hard times. This rare junk sits in a boatyard in the Sacramento delta, abandoned and unprotected. The current owner will destroy the junk if a new home is not found by year-end.Free China’s Long and Colorful History
Little is known of the first half-century of the Free China’s life at sea. Furthermore, surprisingly little is known of the construction of junks. The Free China would likely have been built by local Fujian craftsmen (not mass produced according to blueprints), and sailed along the coasts of China and Taiwan as a working vessel. Registration records of its earlier existence cannot be found.
By 1954, authentic junks such as the Free China were already increasingly uncommon. Indeed, other junks built in that time have long ago been lost forever. Of the historic junks chronicled in Hans Van Tilburg’s book, Chinese Junks on the Pacific: Views from a Different Deck, the Free China is the only one in operable condition. The disposition of others is unknown, lost at sea, or wrecked or beached.
Indeed, it is only by chance that this particular junk was purchased by the crew for their transpacific voyage. Lacking funds themselves, the Governor of Taiwan donated the funds to purchase the junk and gave the junk its name, Free China.
Upon their arrival in San Francisco, the 1955 Free China crew decided to end their voyage there. Not wishing to sail the junk back to Taiwan, the crew wished to donate the junk to a San Francisco Chinese community organization and the San Francisco Maritime Museum, with the hope that the junk might have a “public life.” However, neither group was able to commit to caring for the boat. The crew faced little choice other than to abandon the junk. Eventually, however, the junk passed into private ownership. The junk was purchased for $1, and became a longtime “labor of love” for local San Francisco maritime notables including insurance agent Max Lemke, Harry Dring of the maritime museum and Henry Rusk, a naval architect. The junk was sold in 1989 to Govinda Dalton, a local Bay Area resident and volunteer who helped Harry Dring care for the junk. As noted in Hans Van Tilburg’s book, “Without financial support, nor any guidance on historic preservation, Dalton was free to alter the privately owned vessel in any way he saw fit. The foremast was removed and the high oval stern with its ornate designs was cut away with a chainsaw….The Free China, now renamed Golden Dragon, was hauled out of the water and up on blocks.”
The junk still remains on blocks at the Bethel Island boatyard in the Sacramento delta, unprotected and exposed to the damaging effects of weather. When Dalton became unable to maintain the junk, it was abandoned at the boatyard, and the boatyard owner is now the de facto owner of the junk. While the boatyard owner is supportive of efforts to preserve the junk, he is not in a position to undertake its restoration. He plans to destroy the junk if a new home cannot be found by the end of the year. He has expressed willingness to donate the junk to a nonprofit.Preservation Vision
Chinese Junk Preservation is a small, nonprofit, wholly volunteer-based group of maritime experts, historians and friends and family of the 1955 Free China crew who have joined together in this preservation effort. Our vision: to preserve the junk and the story of its transpacific voyage for future generations. We hope to give the junk a “public life” where it will generate awareness of and interest in maritime, Chinese and American history and culture.
The Free China today awaiting rescue(Photo courtesy of Chinese Junk Preservation).
Although authentic junks have now largely vanished from the seas, junks still have the potential to inspire curiosity and interest. Although there are few examples of Chinese junks which have crossed the Pacific, the group also hopes that preserving the junk will lead to interest in not only the vessel, but also the challenges faced by many past generations of immigrants who came to America by sea.
Chinese Junk Preservation members include maritime experts, historians and friends and family of the 1955 Free China crew. We have received support from the Chinese Historical Society of America, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and National Trust for Historic Preservation. Our advisors include Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Heritage Program Coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Sanctuary Program in the Pacific Island Region and an instructor of maritime archeology and history at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He is the author of Chinese Junks on the Pacific: Views from a Different Deck which chronicles Chinese junks on the Pacific, including the Free China.Urgent Challenge: Help Find a New Home to Save Junk
The critical challenge that looms large is to find a new home—interim or long-term, on land or in water—immediately.
Less pressing but also essential requirements include:
- Assistance in preserving , sorting and organizing the wealth of documents, films, photographs and news clips that exist so that educational programs and/or museum exhibits may be developed about the maritime and Chinese technology, history and culture, as well as American immigration.
- Technical assistance in examining and documenting the vessel’s construction. According to maritime archeologist Van Tilburg, although junks were once commonplace, even today surprisingly little is known of their unique and deceptively simple construction. Details of their construction were—and still are—mostly undocumented, the techniques and variations known to individual craftsmen. The Free China offers a rare opportunity for study.
“S.O.S.” -- Chinese Junk Preservation Welcomes Support
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join us in preserving this vessel. Unless a new home is found for the junk, it will soon be lost forever.
About the Author: Dione Chen established Chinese Junk Preservation and is spearheading efforts to preserve the Free China vessel and the story of its transpacific voyage. She is the daughter of the late Reno Chen, who was one of the Free China crew.
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