Searching for junks and sampans

‘<a href="http://bishop.slq.qld.gov.au/view/action/singleViewer.do?dvs=1540263437073~326&amp;locale=en_AU&amp;metadata_object_ratio=14&amp;show_metadata=true&amp;VIEWER_URL=/view/action/singleViewer.do?&amp;DELIVERY_RULE_ID=10&amp;frameId=1&amp;usePid1=true&amp;usePid2=true" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Sailing from Goondi to Geraldton</a>’, circa 1902. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Sailing from Goondi to Geraldton’, circa 1902. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Volunteer researcher Aliza Chin shares her investigations of late 19th-century Chinese vessels built in Australia.

A research adventure

For the past two months, I have been a volunteer researcher at the Museum. I have become an explorer who conducts archival deep dives, a decipherer and editor of Trove auto-text, an appraiser of photographs stored away in digital collections, swinging between feelings of elation and frustration, in between clicks and scrolls. If you don’t know Trove, it is an Australian online library database aggregator; a free faceted-search engine hosted by the National Library of Australia,[1] in partnership with content providers including members of the National & State Libraries Australasia.[2] It is one of the most well-respected[3] and accessed GLAM services in Australia, with over 70,000 daily users.

To say that the experience has equipped me with new skills in my field would be an understatement, but this blog entry is not about me. Rather, it is about the issues and new sources encountered and uncovered in the little-studied area of Chinese shipbuilding; specifically, vessels that were made here in Australia between the 1870s and early 1900s. Dr Stephen Gapps has been researching sampans and junks for a while and invited me to help with this project.

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Chinese junks and Australian sampans

A section from a panorama of Hong Kong, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

A section from a panorama of Hong Kong, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Celebrating maritime connections between China and Australia

On July 11 in the year 1405 Admiral Zheng He’s Grand Fleet of over 300 ships with 28,000 crew departed China on the first of several expeditions through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The expeditions were aimed at establishing Chinese influence over long established trade routes, now often referred to as the ‘Maritime Silk Road’.  The 600th anniversary of the date of the commencement of the first of these massive expeditions – July 11 – was chosen in 2005 as the annual China National Maritime Day. The Institute of Ancient Chinese Ships has led a conference on Chinese maritime history on this day for the last ten years, with a different international focus each year. Last year was the UK, and this year it was Australia’s turn. The Australian National Maritime Museum’s director Kevin Sumption was invited to deliver a keynote presentation on ‘Chinese Connections at the Australian National Maritime Museum’ and I was invited to give a paper on my research into Chinese watercraft built in Australia between 1870 and 1910.

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