The Ningpo: A Chinese Ocean-going Junk

Not all the China trade was in Yankee clipper ships. There was an enormous amount of almost entirely undocumented coastal and ocean-going shipping in Chinese junks plying the seas between China, Southeast Asia, and even North America. One of the few surviving ships of the so-called Junk Trade is the Ningpo, “one of a handful of large old junks that crossed the Pacific and ended up on the West Coast of the United States.”

The Ningpo, 138 feet in length and 31 in beam, was a medium-sized (300 ton) three-masted Fujian style ocean-going ship, very similar to what’s called the Fuzhou pole junk design. Her upper works were teak, with a hull and numerous bulkheads of camphor wood and ironwood hull. The ornately carved oval stern, complete with bird motif and images of the immortals, is typically Fujianese in character. If historical sources can be believed, she was built originally as the Kin Tai Fong, either in 1753, or maybe 1806. And here is where things start to get really interesting.

Apparently, soon after being launched, the Kin Tai Fong soon turned smuggler and slaver, taking part in a rebellion against the government in 1796, a time when pirates were particularly active in Southern China. Next, she was seized for smuggling (silk and opium) and piracy in 1806, and again in 1814, and again in 1823. In 1834, the Kin Tai Fong was reportedly confiscated by Lord Napier for smuggling and carrying slave girls to Canton. In 1841, she began her seven year stint of serving the imperial government as a prison ship. Reportedly, 158 rebels were summarily executed during this time, hence the blood in the scuppers and heads bouncing across the decks. In 1861, she was seized by Taiping rebels and converted into a fast transport. Retaken by English forces, her name was changed (by “Chinese” Gordon?) to Ningpo

In 1911 she was sold to Americans for $50,000. After having been damaged in a couple typhoons, abandoned by a mutinous crew, and rowed 320 miles back to port after yet another storm, the Ningpo finally sailed across the Pacific to San Pedro, California in a fast 58 days. There she began her career as floating attraction and museum of bizarre torture implements in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Diego. By 1917, the Ningpo was towed to Catalina Island, where she eventually began to sink (literally) into oblivion but not before appearing in the background of several Hollywood adventure films. In fact, it was during one of these Hollywood productions that a prop replica of a fire ship drifted out of control when the winds shifted and ran into the slumbering hulk of the Ningpo, burning the topsides to the waterline. What is left of the ship is covered with mud off Ballast point at Cat Harbor, along with an assortment of artifacts at the Casino in Avalon on Catalina Island.

Or so the story goes. Hans Tilburg, a maritime historian and underwater archaeologist at the University of Hawai‘i has a fuller account–with photos–in the online journal Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies.

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