The Free China junk and its transpacific journey to America offer a rich legacy of maritime, Chinese and American history.

Historic Treasure
Junks are Chinese working vessels. For hundreds of years, China dominated regional maritime trade from Singapore to Korea. Most vessels were built for oceanic commerce, rather than as personal yachts for recreation. Although steamships started to replace sailing junks as the means of transportation along the China Coast in the latter part of the 19th Century, traditional sailng junks continued to play an important role in coastal and deep-sea fishing until after WWII.

The Free China is an authentic cargo vessel built in Fujian Province, China at around the turn of the century. It’s colorful past included ferrying salted fish and smuggling contraband. It has survived to be perhaps the oldest Chinese wooden sailing vessel in existence, and a living historical treasure.

Authentic Construction
As originally constructed, the 80-foot Free China was representative of Chinese working vessels, and characterized by a flat bottom, decorative oval stern and square bow, turret-built hull design, two masts and long sheer lines with prominent wales. The Free China resembles a smaller version of the Fujian-style coastal merchant, the pole junk. The junk featured ten interior watertight bulkheads and compartments. In its original condition, the Free China did not include an engine, shroud or stays, or modern rudder.

Few drawings and photographs exist of technical details of Chinese ship construction. For many observers, junks are among the most mysterious vessels to have sailed the open seas, according to maritime historian and archeologist Hans Van Tilburg. The Free China is a “historic survivor” worth studying as a specific technical example of a historical ship type and cultural artifact, as well as the historical circumstances of its transpacific voyage.

Troubled Times, Uncertain Future for the Free China Junk

Upon arriving in San Francisco in 1955, the Free China was badly in need of a serious overhaul and a new home.

Unable to raise funds to complete repairs, the junk was temporarily docked at China Camp in Marin County, and subsequently ended up abandoned on the rocks there. As no organization could be found that would commit to being responsible for preserving the junk, the junk was transferred for $1 to a small group of volunteers associated with the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the group was unable to restore the junk and the junk’s condition continued to deteriorate. .

The junk next spent four years at a shipyard in the East Bay, where it was literally abandoned as firewood before being moved to Oakland for three more years. There, a dedicated group of volunteers, led by maritime museum supervisor Harry Dring, San Francisco insurance agent and museum trustee Max Lembke, and naval architect Henry Rusk worked to make the junk seaworthy. They were joined by Free China crewmen Reno Chen and Paul Chow.

When the group became unable to continue to care for the junk, she was sold again for $1 to local Bay Area resident and volunteer Govinda Dalton.

The Free China underwent considerable renovation during its many years in the San Francisco Bay. There is no legal protection for historic objects in private ownership.
The keel has been deepened, a modern steel rudder installed, bulkheads removed and a diesel engine added. In addition, the foremast was removed and the high oval stern with its ornate designs cut away with a chainsaw.

In 2007, the Free China could be found sitting on blocks in a boatyard in the Sacramento delta. Abandoned, exposed to the damaging effects of weather, and without provision for future maintenance or restoration, it's future survival was bleak. The long line of volunteers for whom caring for the junk had been a long labor of love were not longer able to do so.

Efforts to save the Free China Junk Launched

Dione Chen, daughter of the late Reno Chen, one of the Free China crew, discovered the Free China junk on the verge of destruction. She had a dream: save this historic vessel and its inspiring story of adventure, dreams, immigration and maritime achievement for future generations. She founded Chinese Junk Preservation, a tiny, all-volunteer, non-profit organization. With support from historians, maritime experts and historical organizations, individuals, an advisory council, and friends and family of the Free China junk crew, Chinese Junk Preservation cast a wide net in their search for a secure future for the junk, in the process connecting with individuals, organizations and governments around the world.

We are grateful for the commitment of the late Joe Spotts, owner of the Marine Emporium boatyard where the Free China junk had been abandoned, and his family for donating the Free China junk for historical preservation. Following five years of uncertainty, the government of Taiwan is saving the Free China junk and is now its new and permanent owner. This spring the Free China junk returns to Taiwan, where it will be preserved as a land-based exhibit at a museum in the city of Keelung, Taiwan.

More Information About Chinese Junks:
Hans Van Tilburg, historian and archeologist for NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries in the Pacific Islands region, has published Chinese Junks on the Pacific: Views from a Different Deck, a book which describes the history, anthropology and nautical technology of Chinese junks and their transpacific experiences. The Free China is one of 10 junks featured in the book and is shown on the book’s cover. More information about Chinese junks and the Free China can be found in Hans Van Tilburg’s book, Chinese Junks on the Pacific: Views from a Different Deck.

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