(CNN) — On April 4, 1955, a huge crowd flocked to Taiwan’s Keelung Harbor.
Firecrackers have been lit. Champagne corks popped. Speeches have been made.
The celebratory environment was a uncommon spectacle in Taiwan at the time. The island was in the midst of the first Taiwan Strait disaster towards the Communists in mainland China, whereas the results of World War II and the Korean War lingered.
Politicians, media and residents of Keelung City had come out to bid farewell to the Free China, a half-century-old junk boat, and its six crew members.
The boat’s identify was bestowed by the governor of Taiwan — a reference to the ongoing battle with the mainland — who sponsored a part of the journey after studying about the crew’s bold plans in a newspaper. A particular commemorative postmark was even created for the event.
Carrying the hopes and goals of the six crew members and their supporters, this small junk boat with a politically laden identify was about to set sail throughout the Pacific Ocean to compete in a world yacht race.
The occasion would kick off on the different facet of the world, ranging from Newport, Rhode Island in the US, ending throughout the Atlantic in Gothenburg, Sweden.
There was only one drawback. What the revelers in Keelung Harbor did not understand was that none of the 5 Chinese crew, nor the American vice-consul who joined at the final minute, knew the way to sail a junk boat.
Meet Paul Chow, the mastermind
Paul Chow, now 94, was the mastermind of the voyage.
A retired physics professor at California State University, Northridge, Chow grew up in a comparatively rich household in China — his dad and mom have been amongst the few in a position to obtain an schooling in the US.
His dad was a authorities railroad supervisor, which means Chow spent his childhood hopping round cities.
In 1941, with the Japanese military pushing into the area, Chow’s mom took her 4 kids and moved from Hong Kong to mainland China.
“Then Pearl Harbor came. At that time, my father was in Haiphong, Vietnam. Our relatives and friends were all in Hong Kong. We were completely cut off,” Chow recollects in a current interview with CNN Travel.
Chow and his brother dropped out of highschool to affix the military. They arrived at Myitkyina in Myanmar in 1944, the place Allied forces would win an necessary battle at the Siege of Myitkyina. They have been then flown again to China, combating battles as they made their method to Japan-controlled Guangzhou. Just as they have been about to launch an assault in Guangzhou, the Japanese military surrendered.
“So we didn’t attack Guangzhou. We marched into Guangzhou as victors,” says Chow.
After the struggle, he flew again to Shanghai to reunite together with his mom.
“I came to the harbor. The first thing I noticed was the smell — ooouf — the smell of food,” says Chow.
The scents have been coming from the fleet of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration — diesel boats introduced from the United States to assist restore China’s war-torn fishing fleet — docked in the Huangpu River.
“I had been starving since the war, since 1937 when the Japanese came. Food was all we dreamed about. They asked me to come on board for a meal first. That was the first American food I had ever had. You could eat as much meat and cakes and pies as you wanted.
“So I instructed my mom: ‘That’s it. I’m not going to school. I’m going to be a fisherman,'” says Chow.
This is how he got acquainted with Reno Chen and Benny Hsu. The fun-loving young fishermen quickly bonded, joining various crews in search of new thrills. They then met fellow fishermen Marco Chung and Hu “Huloo(*6*)Do you assume they might settle for a Chinese junk to affix?”
While working on a diesel boat for nine years, Chow fished alongside traditional Chinese junk boats. But never on one.
“One time in a huge storm, we hauled our final internet and rushed for shelter,” he says. “We put our 300-horsepower-diesel boat on full pace. The junk boat proper subsequent to us pulled up all their sails. By the time we bought to the shelter, they already dropped their anchors and have been washing their deck. They beat us to it.
“I was very impressed. I thought to myself, ‘If they could beat a diesel boat, they could beat a yacht.'”
Chow determined to write down a letter to the newspaper that had featured the submit.
Unexpectedly, he acquired a reply from the North American Yacht Racing Union — a telegram stating that Chow’s “junk boat” was accepted in the yacht race. It was even assigned a racing quantity: 320.
There was only one hiccup: Chow did not personal a junk boat.
Find a boat, then a crew
With simply a few months to spare, Chow traveled round Taiwan’s islands on the lookout for a junk boat — he says he was virtually caught in a fierce battle between the Communists and Nationalist (Kuomintang) armies on Yijiangshan island at one level — earlier than returning to Keelung.
Then he noticed her.
“It was the last ever commercial junk with a shipload of salted fish from mainland China,” says Chow. “The trades were cut off after that and all other junks were converted to fighting junks (because of the conflicts between the two sides).
“The proprietor realized that it was the finish of his profession. Meanwhile, there was no different approach for me to get a junk. So we have been like the solely boy and solely woman on earth — the marriage was instantly settled.”
Chow sold all his valuables, scrounged up every penny of his savings and borrowed more money from Hu. He bought the boat for a total of TWD46,000 ($1,670).
“Sink or swim, I figured I would not want these earthly belongings anymore,” says Chow.
The Free China’s six-man crew.
Courtesy Paul Chow
Chow enlisted five shipmates. Chow was to be the navigator and the radio master. Marco Chung, being the “nicest man,” was voted to be the captain. The multi-talented Hu Loo-chi was to be the sail master and de facto barber. Reno Chen was designated purser and Benny Hsu was to be the boatswain in charge of maintenance.
Lin, who was to be the sixth member of the team, dropped out at the last minute.
Their story soon made the news and support started rolling in. Their grand plan started to take shape.
A six-month food supply was donated by the Rotary Club of Keelung and Taipei, complimenting the three tanks of fresh water and two hens they already had.
But another challenge loomed: Securing US visas for the five crew members.
When they got to the consulate, Chow says a friendly looking guy came out and started asking questions. He gave the crew “10,000 explanation why we could not go”.
That guy was Calvin Mehlert, vice consul.
A few days later, the American showed up at the berth unexpectedly and asked to see the sleeping area on the boat.
“Well, you’ve got six bunks however solely 5 folks. How about let me be part of the crew,” Mehlert asked the team, while promising they’d get their visas.
That was how Mehlert became the last member of the crew — and videographer of the journey.
“We kind of railroaded him into this for the visa — or he railroaded us into it for the passage,” says Chow.
Two months before the race
Sixty-eight days before the race, they departed Keelung Harbor.
Although there were five experienced fishermen on board, none of them had operated a boat like this before.
“Fortunately, there was no wind on that day so, ‘naturally,’ we would have liked to be towed out of the harbor. Out of sight, out of bother,” says Chow.
It took the crew five hours to figure out how to work the junk boat. They sailed all night. The next morning, Chow, the navigator, got up to check their latest coordinates.
“We have been nonetheless in the identical place,” he recalls.
Shortly after readjusting their course again, they faced their first challenge. The boat’s rope and sails had jammed. They weren’t far from where they started and there were thousands of miles ahead of them.
Defeated, the crew requested a tow back to Keelung.
The city mayor, who had started to have doubts about throwing his support behind the crew, let them launch a second time after some convincing.
The crew set sail with two egg-laying hens.
Courtesy Paul Chow
This time, the crew vowed they would sink with the boat rather than fail and return to Taiwan.
Luck wasn’t on their side.
A typhoon hit. Everything broke — again.
The crew sent out an emergency signal to request assistance from nearby ships.
“It was about 4 p.m. An enormous freighter got here. It was like taking a look at a skyscraper in New York,” says Chow.
They started flashing the lights in Morse code, asking the crew to get ready to abandon ship.
The crew replied, “No. We simply need a tow.”
The operator of the freighter said, “Well, good luck then” and left.
Thinking about the incident now, Chow says he understands the futility of their request.
“How might a 10,000-ton freighter tow a 20-ton junk boat? It’s like towing a ping pong ball on a freeway — the ping pong ball goes to be crushed.”
Ready to ride through the typhoon head-on, the team tied everything down and waited.
At 1 a.m., Chow saw a light coming closer and closer.
“We have been going to collide, so I began sending ‘Disable Ship!’ in Morse code,” says Chow.
Right before the ships met, it stopped.
A floodlight shone down on Free China and a voice — this time using a big loudspeaker — shouted, “Are you able to abandon ship but?'”
“We simply laughed. It was the freighter that left earlier,” says Chow, still amused by the situation.
“We simply stated, ‘Go away.'”
The five Chinese members of the crew pose in front of their boat after arriving in the US.
Courtesy Paul Chow
The big vessel circled the small junk for about an hour before turning on the floodlight and speaker again.
The broadcaster said, “Get able to obtain the tow.”
The Free China was towed to Okinawa, Japan. When the bad news reached Taiwan, the island’s fishery authority reportedly sent a telegram to the harbor authority in Okinawa asking them to not let the crew sail again.
“One cause, I assume, is due to the identify Free China. It was alleged to symbolize Taiwan. What if Free China goes down? It could be a unhealthy omen. Also, they have been in all probability a bit involved about our security and their worldwide picture,” says Chow.
“But, you see, we had a diplomat on the boat,” he adds with a smile.
Chow says Mehlert talked their way out of the situation and told the harbor authority, “You haven’t any rights to carry us as a result of we did not do something unsuitable and we aren’t smugglers. As quickly as we let you know we’re able to go, you higher allow us to go.”
By the time they left Yokohama, after multiple repairs, it was June 17. They had already missed the beginning of the race, which started on June 14.
To motivate themselves to continue, the crew decided they were in their own race now, only the distance was much longer.
“From Yokohama, it took us one other 52 days to cross the ocean,” says Chow.
‘We fought like cats and dogs’
Life on the boat was mundane and uneventful, punctuated by arguments, moments of joy and small storms.
Chow compares it to life in quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My grandkids came over final 12 months and bought caught right here for six months. Every day they stated, ‘Boooring.’ That was our lives on the boat,” says Chow.
“On the junk, we fought like cats and canine.”
He recalls one “virtually mutiny” near the end of the journey when Hu, “the tai chi grasp,” swore to throw Chung, the captain and “nicest man,” into the sea.
On the last few days of the journey, they sailed through thick fog. Chow’s sextant, a navigation instrument that measured celestial objects and the horizon — the only navigation device at that time — was useless.
“We have been crusing in blind,” says Chow. “As the fog dispersed lastly, we have been solely inches away from hitting a cliff. We’d arrived,” says Chow.
By the time they pulled into San Francisco, on August 8, 126 days had passed since their first departure from Keelung.
“We initially had all these plans, persevering with our journey to Sweden after which, the remainder of Europe. But as soon as we have been landed, nobody needed to set foot on the boat once more,” says Chow.
Life after Free China
Squabbles aside, the journey bonded the six crew members for life.
Although they ended up dispersing to different parts of the world, they kept in touch, following each other’s lives and helping out whenever possible.
When they arrived in San Francisco, Chow says elders in Chinatown found out that the crew had given up everything for the journey. They gave each member $1,400 each to start a new life.
Today, Chow is the sole crew member still alive. As for his friends’ post-sail lives, he says Chung was “writing to a woman he was launched to when fishing in Thailand” during the sailing and he moved back to Taiwan soon after they completed the journey. He got married and built a successful business before migrating to the United States.
Hsu — who “could not even communicate Cantonese nicely and barely spoke any English” — joined a shrimp fishing crew in Alabama before continuing his studies. He ended up getting a master’s degree in biology at the University of Washington and working for the United Nations.
The crew met and took this picture on the fortieth anniversary of their journey. Benny Hsu was the just one lacking — he died in a automobile accident in the Sixties.
Courtesy Paul Chow
Chen and Chow decided to restart their lives in California together.
“Reno and I spent $500 and acquired a used 1951 Buick to function our subsequent dwelling and gear to start out one other enterprise,” says Chow.
“Think of what a enjoyable New Yorker was like in the 50s — that was Reno. He loves dancing, ingesting and smoking. He was a faculty drop-out, significantly better than the remainder of us — who have been solely highschool drop-outs,” Chow says of his close friend.
To afford the expensive foreign students’ fees, Chen dropped out of school so they could work and pay for Chow’s education. He then slowly worked his way up an American electronics company as an engineer.
“I attended everybody’s funeral — Benny in Seattle, Reno in Palo Alto, Marco in Los Angeles, Huloo in New Zealand and Calvin in San Jose. Until now, I’ve been making an attempt to maintain in contact with their wives and kids,” says Chow.
How about the junk boat?
After a “melancholic” goodbye, it has gone through a few owners.
A palm-sized photo of the crew is still printed on the Navigator Monument at San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf, a humble reminder of their remarkable feat. But the journey has been forgotten by many.
“You want to speak to Dione, Reno’s daughter,” says Chow, directing us to his late crewmate’s daughter to find out more about the junk’s final journey.
Free China’s return to Taiwan
Dione Chen and her brothers grew up with her father’s shipmates — or “crew uncles” as she calls them — in their lives. She still visits Chow and his wife, as well as Mehlert’s wife, from time to time.
After her father passed away in 2007, Chen says she regretted not listening to his stories with more respect when she was young. Wanting to learn more, she approached Chow, who told her: “Go see the boat first.”
Discarded in a shipyard in Bethel Island, it was waiting to be demolished. Masts already cut, the paint was fading and it was missing sails .
Yet Chen fell in love with it immediately and vowed to save it.
Lacking much in the way of resources, Chen says it was a strenuous four-and-a-half-year plan. Following up on every possible lead and talking to every media outlet that would listen to her, she eventually enlisted the help of the Taiwanese government and scholars.
Following Reno Chen’s dying, his daughter Dione launched into her personal journey to return the Free China junk to Taiwan.
Courtesy Paul Chow
Chen often compares her own journey with the Free China to the original crew’s wild adventure.
“It appeared like both of the journeys have been a mixture of luck. But it was about making your personal luck one step at a time,” she says.
Chen hopes her story will encourage others to explore their heritage before it’s too late.
“I imply, I feel my father would have beloved it if I had saved the boat earlier than…”
Chen doesn’t finish her sentence.
But the importance of the story of the Free China goes beyond her family’s legacy. It serves as one of the few valuable documentations of a Chinese junk boat and remains part of America’s immigrant history.
“Speaking as an American, I feel it is crucial to save lots of immigrant historical past. The level is that Asian American historical past is American historical past — not one thing separate. It’s particularly related now due to the anti-Asian hate,” says Chen.
“Growing up in America, I did not assume it was cool to be Chinese. I do really feel prouder now. I’m pleased with my dad and mom and what my dad did to pursue the American dream.”