On May 17, the Free China junk sailed into Keelung Harbor, but not under its own power. After a hiatus of 57 years, what is believed to be the oldest surviving Chinese junk returned to its hometown on a Yangming Marine Cargo ship.
Constructed in Mawei, Fujian province, China in 1890, Free China is the only existing wooden Chinese junk that has ever successfully completed a trans-Pacific voyage under its own sail-power. Originally named Keelung after Keelung Harbor, located in the northern tip of Taiwan, it was renamed Free China in order to participate in the international yacht race on June 11, 1955. Measuring around 82-feet in length, Free China is over a century old and is the only recorded Chinese wooden junk to have sailed across the Pacific Ocean.
In April 1955, five Taiwanese crew members, Reno Chia-lin Chen, Paul Chuan-chun Chou, Marco Yu-lin Chung, Huloo Loo-chi Hu, and Benny Chia-cheng Hsu, together with Calvin Mehlert, the US vice-consul in Taiwan, launched the Free China junk from Keelung. Without any electronic instrumentation on board, the tiller of the boat was repeatedly broken by storms during its voyage. After 114 days of hardship, the boat and its crew finally arrived in San Francisco in August of that year.
Although the junk missed the opportunity to participate in the international yacht race, it was the first time a Chinese boat had sailed into the port of San Francisco, and its arrival caused a sensation at the time. Today, a monument stands in memory of the Free China on San Francisco’s Pier 29.
The idea for the initial yacht race came from Paul Chuan-chun Chou, who was working with the China Fishing Company in Taiwan at that time. In October 1954, he read a news report that the New York Yacht Club would sponsor a transatlantic international yacht race from Rhode Island to Sweden. He then recruited other colleagues, Reno Chia-lin Chen, Marco Yu-lin Chung, Huloo Loo-chi Hu, Benny Chia-cheng Hsu and Feng-chu Lin to join the team. Lin dropped out at the last minute and was replaced by Calvin Mehlert. Of the six-person crew, three members have already passed away. Now only Captain Chou, Huloo and Mehlert are still alive.
In 1955, hostilities between the Communist and the Nationalist governments were still raging across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese citizens could not easily apply for a passport to go abroad, but Taiwan’s government gave permission for the five young men, none of whom knew how to sail, to leave the country and cross the Pacific on the Free China. The United Evening News reported that Lung Yingtai, minister of the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA), pointed out that the departure of the Free China was permitted as a special case by the government of Chiang Kai-shek to create a sense of “breaking through the isolation in pursuit of freedom” in the international community.
The World Journal reported that Dione Chen, daughter of Reno Chia-lin Chen, set up the Chinese Junk Preservation organization in 2008 (web site: www.ChineseJunkPreservation.com) to preserve the Free China, which was docked at Bethel Island in San Francisco for years. After many years of effort, the former boat owner decided this February to sell the junk for a symbolic US$1.00 to Taiwan’s CCA, which finally allowed the Free China to return home. The shipping cost of NT$7 million (US$236,000) from San Francisco to Keelung was approved with President Ma Ying-jeou’s help.
After the passage of half a century, the Free China has lost much of its elegance. The aging hull looks neglected, having gone without maintenance or repair for years. The junk had also undergone several modifications and has been resold three times. “We were thinking how difficult it would be to ship a boat home? It is really so hard,” said Stanley Wang, director of the CCA’s Cultural Heritage. In order to transport this aging junk, CCA formed two groups. One was responsible for shipping the junk back to Taiwan and for management issues, while the other was devoted to discussing how to bring it back, according to the Taipei-based China Times.
The United Evening News reported on the Free China’s return on May 17, saying that an official welcome ceremony is planned at the National Museum of Maritime Science and Technology in Keelung on July 11. The ceremony will be attended by Chou, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chou will bring ten members of his family to the event. Huloo, now living in New Zealand, might have difficulty walking, but he too will attend with his family, along with Mehlert. Dione Chen and the son of Marco Yu-lin Chung, will also attend the ceremony.