It was more than 50 years ago that Chinese professional turned Taiwanese fisherman Paul Chuan-Chun Chow read a newspaper story about an upcoming yacht race from New York to Sweden. He and four friends had already fled the communist revolution for the security of Taiwan and now their sights were focused on making a new life in America. The fact that they had no boat and were not sailors seemed to matter little – it was their only ticket to the west. They applied to the race committee and were accepted. They sold off all of their meager belongings, and with the help of the governor of Taiwan, purchased an aging junk – the proviso being that they name the vessel Free China in defiance of the People’s Republic. They acquired U.S. visas and enlisted the young U.S. Vice Consul to Taiwan, Calvin Mehlert, as photographer and sixth member of the crew.
Unfortunately, a failed launch delayed their departure, followed by a typhoon that claimed the junk’s rig. Together, the delays prevented them from ever reaching America’s East Coast (via the Panama Canal) and the start of the race. Instead, they made way for San Francisco and their new home. After a total 112 days at sea (which included a repair stop in Yokohama Harbor, Japan) and after sailing nearly 7,000 nautical miles, on Aug. 8, 1955, Free China passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The junk docked at Pier 43 in San Francisco. Chow went on to become a professor and Reno Chia-Lin Chen, the ship’s navigator and radio operator, became an engineer. Mehlert returned to Taiwan.
Today, after years of neglect, Free China lays abandoned in a Sacramento River Delta boatyard where it has fallen into serious disrepair. But thanks to the efforts of Dione Chen, navigator Chen’s daughter, and others, a group called Chinese Junk Preservation has formed with the hope of saving the historic vessel. Free China’s hull still has some integrity and its planks still have some sheer. However, the vessel must be moved from its present location by the summer of 2009 or it will be lost forever. Chen’s group is working with the National Park Service, San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Chinese Historical Society of America to secure funds to move and preserve Free China and the part it played in the story of Chinese immigration.
For more information visit www.chinesejunkpreservation.com.