Saving the iconic junk Dukling

May 08, 2015 14:36
Cheng Ching-wah (left) and Yu Lik-hang (right), seen with a model of the Dukling, expect the junk to be able to sail back to Hong Kong by next month. Photo: HKEJ

The Dukling, one of only three antique three-mast wooden junks left in Hong Kong, was built in the 1940s, a lifetime ago.

The boat was an icon of Hong Kong.

In 2012, it took part in a cruise organized by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to celebrate the Tin Hau Festival.

Then, when the inflatable giant yellow rubber duck sailed into Victoria Harbor in 2013, Dukling was the pilot boat.

The vessel once belonged to four English merchants.

It is suspected that they left the junk unattended in Sham Wan, an inlet on Lamma Island, to avoid hefty maintenance fees.

The Dukling began to fall apart.

Water flooded into the cabin during typhoons, and the boat finally sank last year.

Two Hong Kong yacht traders, Yu Lik-hang and his aunt Cheng Ching-wah, decided to save the sunken vessel.

“We want people to know more about the Dukling,” Yu said.

“It is an icon of Hong Kong. It would be a great loss,” Cheng said.

Ng Chi-ming was the captain of the Dukling for 20 years.

He witnessed both the sinking and refloating of the vessel.

One of his colleagues had tried to save the boat when it started to sink, boarding the junk and spooning out water inside it.

Cheng and Yu were moved by the scene and decided to save the vessel, regardless of the cost.

Though the English owners had wanted to get rid of Dukling for a long time, acquiring the boat from them was far from smooth sailing.

“There were four of them, and we could only talk business when all of them were available," Cheng recalled.

"The asking price was high, too. We had already negotiated for a couple months.” 

If not for assistance from the Marine Department, a deal might not have been possible.

“The Marine Department won’t allow a sunken boat to sit on the seabed forever,” Ng said.

“If the boat's owners do not do anything to get it out of the water, the government will do it on their behalf, and the boat will be discarded afterwards.”

Repairing and renovating a broken boat costs much more than buying a brand new one.

The purchase price, salvage costs and maintenance fees (antique wooden vessels like the Dukling have to be inspected and examined every four years) could amount to HK$10 million.

And it’s not just the money.

For an aged vessel like the Dukling, finding suitable parts, such as a workable diesel engine, is difficult.

“The engine model had been discontinued for many years," Cheng recalled.

"Luckily, we found one in an old ship factory in Hong Kong.”

The body of the wooden vessel had been covered with oyster shells. Getting rid of them was a daunting task.

“First we had to shovel away the shells and then polish the body,” Yu said.

Unlike new boats built with fiberboard, the Dukling had wooden joints, which are easily worn out.

Ng said they had to put a new coating on them every three months.

But the most difficult part of the preservation project was hiring experienced people to repair and renovate the vessel.

The Dukling was mainly built using tongue-groove joints, and many of the old workers who mastered this technique have died.

The vessel is now being repaired by old masters from Zhuhai, Guangdong province.

“At one point, we thought about giving up. It is so money- and time-consuming,” Cheng said.

If sold, the wood that has been recovered would be worth between HK$5 million (US$640,000) to HK$6 million, she said.

Yu emphasized that the group is not backed by any big conglomerate.

“Don’t keep mentioning the total amount of the project," he said.

"My friends would think that we are super rich.”

The whole project will cost him an arm and a leg, he said.

However, the pair received lots of support from the public when people heard about the project.

So they decided to tough it out.

To ease the financial burden, they are looking for sponsorship from companies and are willing to sell advertising space on the junk’s body and sails.

Would it be like the advertisements on trams that wrap around the entire vehicle?

“Yes, the whole boat is available for ads,” Yu said.

“It is acceptable if it’s only for a short period.”

Many organizations, including schools, have also shown interest in touring the boat once it is refurbished.

An exhibition about the Dukling is being held in Times Square, Causeway Bay.

Visitors can see some parts of the iconic junk, such as an alarm bell, a life buoy and the boat's wheel.

A miniature Dukling is also on display. The model is as old as the junk itself: it was used by the builder to market the vessel.

The exhibition will run until Monday.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 7.

Translation by Betsy Tse

[Chinese version 中文版]

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The alarm bell from the Dukling. It played an important role in ensuring the safety of the junk. Photo: HKEJ
Removing oyster shells from the surface of the Dukling was a daunting task. Photo: Cheng Ching-wah and Yu Lik-hang
The Dukling is now being repaired by experienced boat builders in Zhuhai. Photo: Cheng Ching-wah and Yu Lik-hang

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal