Chinese maritime traditions and Lunar New Year: It’s the Year of the Rooster… so bring on the Dragons!

Dragon boat figurehead painted gold, green and beige with red beard and white plastic antennae. ANMM Collection 00039729, Gift from Carlos Ung.

Dragon boat figurehead painted gold, green and beige with red beard and white plastic antennae. ANMM Collection 00039729. Gift from Carlos Ung.

It’s Lunar New Year and time to present the colour and excitement of ancient Chinese culture from the museum’s collections. Dragons feature heavily. And so does racing. (I know that it’s the Year of the Rooster, but they don’t usually like water …)

Dragons have been a potent symbol of Chinese culture for thousands of years – people believed they lived in rivers and lakes and controlled the rains and crops. They were mostly protective, yet when angered created havoc with floods and drought. Chinese communities honoured the dragons with festivals and sacrifices to keep the river dragon happy.

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Australian-Chinese junks and sampans

Trinity Bay junks

Chinese junks, made in Australia. This photograph, suggested as being taken around 1907, shows three junks on Trinity Bay, Cairns, in Queensland. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 16203

Every Sunday and Wednesday mornings we would watch for the sails of the Chinese junks to come sailing up the river one behind the other. Red, white & black beacons guided them. Some sails were snowy white, some had …huge patches on and some were old and yellow.

D.E. Griffith ‘A Little history [of Cairns]’ 1959

When we think of the history of ship building in Australia, Chinese junks probably don’t spring to mind. Yet for a period from the 1870s to the early 1900s a fleet of junks operated in northern Queensland. At least some, if not all of the estimated ten to fifteen known junks, were made locally, in places such as Cooktown.

And in terms of smaller boats, it may surprise many maritime historians that hundreds if not thousands of sampans – smaller, often poled, barge-like vessels – were made across the north of Australia, particularly around Cairns and in Darwin.

My interest in these vessels began when I came across reference to a ‘Water Picnic’ that was held at Innisfail (then known as Geraldton) for Federation celebrations in 1901. News reports mention that the centre-piece of the water picnic was to be a flotilla of ‘around 400 sampans’. That’s a lot of sampans gathered together for one small north Queensland country town festival.

With further research it became clear that junks and sampans (often mislabelled by European observers who sometimes used ‘junk’ and ‘sampan’ as a catch-all for any Chinese vessel) were not just a common sight on northern Australian coastal waters and rivers, but were in fact critical to the development of the north. But why were they there? Who were these Chinese shipwrights? How and why did they make junks and sampans in Australia?

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