All aboard the Dukling: How the junk boat became a Hong Kong icon

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(CNN) – You may not know what a junk boat is, but chances are you’ve seen one.

The junk boat – tall and made of wood, with its three bright red sails glowing in the sunlight of Victoria Harbor – is one of Hong Kong’s most recognizable visual symbols.

These ships are often featured on postcards, retro travel posters, key chains, t-shirts, ceramics, and even the logo of the city’s tourism authority. But when it comes to finding trash in Hong Kong today, you have to take a much closer look.

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

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

It’s easy to forget that Hong Kong isn’t a single island – it’s an archipelago. Being on the water is a great way to feel the wind on your face on a hot day, but it’s also a way to understand the shape and scope of this diverse 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 virus restrictions in Hong Kong.

Before the coronavirus, there were three trips a day on the weekend with a maximum of 40 passengers each. The Saturday route made several stops in Kowloon, including Tim Sha Tsui, while the Sunday went from Central to North Point. The evening sailing was scheduled for the Symphony of Lights, a nighttime show where skyscrapers along the harbor light up their windows in fun designs and colors just after dark.

When the harbor was full of red sails

Libby Chan, Assistant Director (Board of Trustees and Collections) of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, explains that many of Hong Kong’s early residents came from two groups – those who lived their lives on land (Hakka) and those who lived their lives on Sea (tanka).

As late as the 1970s, many Hong Kong residents lived, worked, ate and slept aboard these wooden boats and regularly moved to typhoon shelters or docks along the city’s coast to sell their wares and get supplies. From the 1970s onwards, many locals traded their boathouses for apartments in Hong Kong’s now famous tall housing developments and gave up their lives at sea for more reliable paid work in factories or offices.

The Dukling sails on Victoria Harbor.

And 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 – all of them arrived by sea.

“The first group of people who met traders were boat people. You can see many depictions of boat people in very beautiful ways by Western artists. From that day on, garbage became the logo of Hong Kong.”

The name “Dukling” is also a mixture of modern and classic Hong Kong. Its Chinese name is Ap ling ho: Ap means duck, Ling means soul or spirit, and ho is one way of adding a “that” to a name. A rough English translation could be “the sacred duck”. Its original owner found that the front of the boat looked like a duck’s head.

However, if you Googled “Junk Boat” you will get page after page pictures of ships covered in rubbish. Search for “duckling” and you will get cute pictures of fluffy baby ducks. “Duck Boat” conjures up those hybrid water-land boats that take tourists through San Francisco and Seattle.

The current owner, the local businessman Hazen Tang, decided to deliberately misspelling the name Dukling in order to be able to play the search engine better.

dukling junk boat

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

And Hodge / CNN

Restoration of a historic ship

The story of Dukling corresponds to that of Hong Kong.

The original owners of the boat, local shrimp, sold them to a French man who used the boat for recreation and did not live all day. The Frenchman next sold Dukling to a British expat who eventually returned to his homeland and left 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 find the previous owner in the UK and get permission to raise her. Then it was repaired in Zhuhai, which required additional permits as the city is part of mainland China. The next step was to find carpenters and craftsmen who still know how to care for wooden boats.

The current owner Tang is a Hong Kong resident who absolutely wanted to get it back into the hands of the locals – and into Victoria Harbor. His company, HS Travel International Company Limited, is a Hong Kong-based tourism company with offices across Asia.

The finished product is a beautiful, living piece of history that has been lying on the water for tourists since 2015. Charlotte Li, director of business development at Dukling’s parent company, says 80% of the boat is original.

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

dukling junk boat

It is traditional for the Dukling crew to pray to the sea goddess Matsu (also spelled Mazu) to ask for happiness and safety every time they sail.

And Hodge / CNN

Dukling’s redesign did not just extend to the infrastructure. It turns out that the famous red sails aren’t that red – they’re actually an orange-brown color that looks redder in the bright Hong Kong sunlight.

There is still a small shrine to the sea goddess Matsu near the front of the boat, before which the crew members bow and offer incense to wish each other a happy voyage, but during this time women are allowed to enter this front section of the ship, while it was strictly forbidden in fishing times.

In addition to Dukling, Hong Kong visitors can spot two similar boats in Victoria Harbor.

Aqualuna is a local tourism company that has built two replica junks, both of which bring visitors up and down several times a day, especially at sunset when skyscrapers along the waterfront light up their exteriors for a show.

Though the two companies might see themselves as competitors, Li insists there is no rivalry as the owners of Dukling and Aqualuna want the same thing – to preserve the city’s maritime heritage.

“They have the heart and want to keep junk boats in Victoria Harbor,” she says. “There is no such thing as ‘real’ or ‘unreal’.” Li notes that Dukling can only carry 40 passengers at a time, while both Aqualuna boats can each carry up to 90 passengers.

Where to find boat culture today

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

But while many tanka have moved ashore, there are still traces of their way of life all over town that complement a trip on Dukling.

Hong Kong’s name means fragrant harbor, inspired by the red incense that was burned in temples dedicated to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. (You 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 parts of the city that Tanka have been relocated to – such as Tai Po in the New Territories – it is still possible to see parts of the “old way of life” at major events such as weddings and funerals. Many boat people communicated through traditional songs known in English as saltwater songs.

dukling junk boat

Sail colors indicated the status of a family. Wealthy fishing families could afford brown or red cloth sails.

And Hodge / CNN

“The boatmen’s dialect is different from Cantonese, but they have some overlap. 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 – for example, the best routes to avoid storms – while others were about advertising or family. “It’s part of our intangible heritage,” adds Chan.

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

Despite all the changes in and around Victoria Harbor, the waterway still offers space for traditional junk boats – as long as there is water to sail, Dukling plans to sail on it.

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