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FEATURE: Voyage of 'Free China' has only just begun

2012/07/29 16:56:06

By Christie Chen, CNA staff reporter

The Chinese wooden sailing boat "Free China" has recently made its way back to Taiwan, but as many celebrate its dramatic return, some are concerned about the boat's future because of the daunting preservation challenges that loom ahead.

"We have only finished half of the work," Stanley S.L. Wang, director of the Ministry of Culture's Bureau of Cultural Heritage, told CNA recently.

The boat, 21.3 meters long and 5.2 meters wide, is believed to have been built in the 1890s. It is also said to be the oldest existing Chinese junk built according to ancient methods and one of the only ones to have sailed across the Pacific.

Shipped back to Taiwan from the United States in May, it is now situated next to a museum in the port city of Keelung, from where it embarked on a cross-Pacific voyage to the United States 57 years ago.

Experts are concerned that the junk, which is being left outdoors without any protective cover, will not withstand Keelung's rainy weather and Taiwan's scorching sun and frequent typhoons.

"I'm worried that the boat will reach the end of its life in Taiwan," said Liao Chih-chung, an associate professor of cultural heritage conservation and member of an expert team that has offered technical guidance on the Chinese junk's return and preservation.

While the Taiwanese government and companies have spent over NT$15 million (US$497,572) to ship the vessel back, only NT$2 million has been allocated so far for its preservation and maintenance.

Laurence L.S. Lwo, head of the team of experts and a dean at National Taiwan Ocean University, said placing the boat outdoors was not ideal but ended up as the only option because of a lack of funding.

In response, Wang, who has led the government effort to save the boat over the past three years, said his bureau will soon hold a meeting to see if the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education can jointly allocate NT$15 million to build an indoor space for the vessel.

Another option, Wang said, is to call on companies, such as the country's major shipping firms, to "adopt" the vessel and its preservation.

Besides the challenge of funding, whether or not to restore the boat to its original look is also an issue of great concern to the preservation team.

Since its arrival in the United States in August 1955, the boat has changed ownership four times, leaving it looking vastly different from the original boat that carried its six crew members on a historic journey.

Some of the watertight bulkheads of the junk have been removed and the hull of the vessel, assembled using the traditional method of mortise and tenon, has also been nailed with rivets.

In addition, the 3-meter stern of the boat has been cut off and the hull of the boat has been painted blue and green instead of the original beige and decorated with drawings of shark teeth and dragon scales.

Lwo said his team will rebuild the stern and cabin of the junk with better wood and try to prevent the boat from further decaying.

Major changes to other parts of the vessel may not be made, however, out of respect for the concept of keeping relics in their current form, he said, noting that a more detailed preservation plan should be available within three months.

"We'd rather be slow and correct because once we start making changes we can't start over again," Lwo said.

Not everyone on the team, however, agrees that the boat should be kept as it is.

"If it was an ordinary relic it could be preserved in its current state, but it (the boat) has many symbolic meanings," said Liao, who believes that the boat's grandeur cannot be appreciated without its sails and original look restored.

He added that the task is possible, as many photos of the boat's original appearance and documents on the techniques used to build it are still well-preserved.

He also acknowledged though that without funding, "there is nothing much that can be done."

Meanwhile, the living crew members of the boat have expressed their hope to see the boat restored to its former glory.

"I hope that in the near future, 'Free China' can be ready to sail again," Paul Chow, a former commercial fisherman and crew member, said at a forum in Keelung on July 11, when the boat was unveiled to the public.

The 85-year-old retired physics and astronomy professor and his five shipmates -- Hu Loo-chi, Calvin E. Mehlert, Benny Hsu, Reno Chen and Marco Chung -- embarked on the journey on April 16, 1955.

They had hoped to get their vessel to the United States for it to compete in an international race from America to Sweden in June that year.

They failed to make it in time for the race, but the boat arrived in San Francisco after a 114-day journey.

The vessel had remained in the U.S. since then. It was first donated to an American museum and later found abandoned, on the verge of destruction, in a private shipyard in 2009. It was shipped back to Taiwan from Oakland in April this year and arrived in Keelung on May 17.

Dione Chen, daughter of Reno Chen, one of the late crew members, said she hopes in the future that people can see and touch the vessel and use it as a launching pad to study history and culture.

Chen, founder of the Chinese Junk Preservation, a nonprofit group working to save the junk and its story, said the vessel's story should be spread worldwide.

"I hope that whatever (preservation) work can be done, it can be shared widely with people not only here in Keelung and Taipei, but around the world," Chen said.