Rise of the Red Head Junks - When the Teochew Forefathers Overcame the Odds

Jonque Chinoise A Sincapour by Louis Le Breton

Jonque Chinoise A Sincapour by Louis Le Breton, 1839


In 1684 the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty Kangxi (reign 1661-1722) issued a decree to re-open the coastline of China for maritime activities. The decision marked an end restrictions on private overseas trade imposed on the Chinese people since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and began also the rehabilitation of the southern Chinese coast, which a prolonged war fought between the Manchurian invaders of China and the powerful merchant-pirate in Fujian Zheng Chenggong thoroughly devastated. However for the Teochew region, whose population bore the brunt of the worst savagery committed by the two sides, the road to recovery only commenced with the voyage of its first migrants to Siam (now Thailand) during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723 to 1735). 

Since 16th century a sizable number of Chinese had began to settle in various key cities in Southeast Asia, such as Ayutthaya, Hoi An, Batavia, Melaka and Manila. They were mainly Hokkien merchants from Fujian who were given exemption by the Ming government to trade abroad, and later refugees from the Zheng Chenggong's kingdom in Taiwan that fell to the Qing dynasty before the maritime ban was lifted. Because of their trading and scholarship background - many were scholar-bureaucrats who served the Zheng family, these early settlers often possessed significant wealth, which they sustained serving by serving officials of native and colonial rulers in the lands they resided, as well as agents for other merchants seeking trade from China. On the other hand, the Teochews who followed after were chiefly petty traders or adventurers. They were initially limited by resources, but not drive as they strove to better the fortunes of not only themselves, but their entire clans.

One of the first Teochews to venture abroad was a native of Theng Iang Gang 程洋崗 in Thenghai 澄海 county named Chua Ngang 蔡彦. After inheriting the businesses of his family in junk shipping and selling of brown sugar, he moved to the port town of Changlim 樟林 and then to Siam, where he came to discover the availability of vast quantities of hard wood in its forests. When he returned to Changlim, Chua Ngang approached the heads of many merchant houses and told of them the great opportunities for making money in Siam. Once they were excited by his descriptions, he offered to help them build large open-sea cargo-carriers, also called Ior-zhun 洋船. In order to entice them, he promised not to accept a dime should mishap befall on their junk within three years. As building a junk in China was exceedingly expensive due to a shortage of suitable wood, many merchants readily made a deal. Thus in this manner Chua Ngang not only made a fortune for himself, but also helped to build a fleet of nearly one hundred trading junks for the Teochew mercantile community and establish a foothold for its members in Siam.

Building an Ior-zhun in those days was no mean feat. Modified from coastal grain transporters called phoh-tso 粕糟 (also written as 舶艚), or theu-tso 塗糟, that carried rice exports from Teochew to Fujian since the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), each of these vessels were built for maximum cargo and passenger space, as well as stability that was needed to cut across the open waters of Gulf of Tonkin and Gulf of Siam. When the wreckages of two such vessels were recovered near Changlim in 1971 and 1972, one was found to be 39 metres long, 13 metres wide, and with five decks of cargo space and capacity for over 100 passengers; and the other 41.6 metres long and 13.6 metres wide and indicated by an inscription to have two masts. Typically these Teochew junks had burden of about 200 to 300 tons, but by the 19th century some that operated of Changlim had three masts and reached 500 tons. Even so the largest Teochew junks were hardly comparable to the mammoth-sized ones of the Hokkiens that were sometimes over 1,000 tons. Yet it is said that should one each from the two types collide, it is the latter that would be in peril for by tradition shipbuilders in Guangdong province (which the Teochew prefecture was part of) always used hard timber such as the native-grown tie-li-mu (鐵力木, literally “iron-strength wood”), their counterparts from Fujian were willing to face the risk of using easily available pine and cedar softwood. 

Incredibly the construction of the Teochew junks was never done with the use of drawings or manuals. Instead their builders relied entirely on their memory of instructions passed down orally by predecessors as well as expertise acquired through experience. To some extent this made easier by the fact that all Chinese junks had to conform to a set of rigid building specifications set by the Qing government, which was put in place to differentiate vessels belonging to China and others belonging to its overseas-based enemies and other foreigners. In 1723 Emperor Yongzheng issued another set of regulations requiring vessels from the various coastal provinces of China to have their bows painted in different colours for custom inspection and taxation purposes. Based on fire being fengshui element of the South cardinal direction, Guangdong being the southernmost province was assigned the red colour, while Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu were allocated green, white and black respectively. Consequently the Ior-zhun built by Chua Ngang and Teochew shipbuilders after him were referred as Ang Thau Tsung 红頭船, or Red Head Junks. And because the Cantonese and Hainanese from the same province rarely sailed beyond the shores of Vietnam (which Chinese seafarers historically considered an extension of the Chinese coastline), the nickname became synonymous with the Teochew people both in China and Southeast Asia.

Model of the Red Head Junk in the Changlim Historical Port Museum 樟林古港博物館

Model of the Red Head Junk in the Changlim Historical Port Museum 
樟林古港博物館 (image source: The Teochew Store)

The restrictions imposed by the Qing government invariably stalled the evolutionary development of the Teochew junk and its Hokkien cousin. Well-acquainted with this class of vessel, John Crawfurd who was the Resident of Singapore (1823 -1827) disparaged it as “clumsy and awkward in the extreme” when compared to the far more sophisticated Western square-rigged ships. However, he conceded also that in his 13 years of acquaintance with the junk trade, he knew only of four shipwrecks involving the Chinese. Undoubtedly the admirable safety record of the Chinese junks has everything to do with the practice of its sailors to always sail in the direction of - and never against - the monsoon winds that drove their passage, the old Teochew junk masters would certainly also bring to our attention that every of their vessels were painted with a pair of eyes in the front so that it could “see” its way, and an eight-trigrams logo to shield it from undesirable elements of harm.

Its humble beginning and the rivalry with the more powerful Hokkiens notwithstanding, the Red Head Junk network of the Teochew merchants was by late 18th century a fundamental part of trade on the South China Sea. Traversed between virtually every significant place of production, its vessels carried nearly every type of goods, such as sugar produced from Teochew, cotton from northern China, textile from Guangzhou, sappanwood from Cambodia, rice from Siam, sea products from the Riau islands, pepper from Palembang, tin from Bangka and gold from West Borneo, not forgetting opium imported from Bengal, and the most important - migrant labour from Teochew. Crucially Southeast Asia might not be what it is today if the Red Head Junks were not at the fore of the foundation of some of its most prosperous urban centres, such as Bangkok, Singapore, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Johor Baru and Pontianak. 

Red Head Junk Park, Thenghai 澄海紅頭船公園

Red Head Junk Park, Thenghai 澄海紅頭船公園 
(image source: The Teochew Store)

With the appearance of the steamship, the ever-adaptable Teochew merchants swiftly embraced the new means of transport and Red Head Junk was gradually retired from its role after the 1850s. Although the glorious period enjoyed by the Red Head Junk is now largely forgotten by the world, in the Teochew region the "Red Head Junk" spirit is still spoken of as the epitome of our people's courage and unity that allowed the overcoming of all odds. 


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