Ivory and imperial-blue sails, arched like dragon wings, pull taut in the evening breeze as the teakwood hull plies an easy 4S-minute loop through Victoria Harbour. The sail design is inspired by Ming Dynasty-era ceramics, featuring a dragon motif as a symbol of luck, and cuts a dramatic silhouette against the night sky, glittering with city lights. There are other ships aplenty in these waters—cruise liners, cargo vessels, fishing boats, and motorized yachts—but I’m aboard what might be Hong Kong’s last true junk.
The Aqua Luna II was built by hand and without a single nail by Au Wai, an octogenarian junk builder and the last of his ilk in the city until he recently retired. These traditional boats emerged during China’s Han Dynasty, and were used for shipping, fishing, exploration—even in battle—for the next two millennia. As recently as the 1970s, Au says, “the industry was thriving and there were a lot of traditional junks docked in the harbor.” But over the years, the boats have slowly disappeared.
Despite a few modern adjustments to comply with government regulations, Au’s building process remained firmly rooted in time-honored methods. He uses bamboo for waterproofing and Indonesian teak wood to construct the hull, carefully cutting pieces according to their flexibility. The curved bottom of the boat, for example, requires the most malleable planks. Each piece is heated into shape, then locked together with a tree-derived glue.
Together with his son, Au Sai-Kit, and a team of builders, the elder Au spent two years constructing the Aqua Luna II in mainland China, before moving his work to Hong Kong. The ship took its maiden voyage in April, joining its sister craft, the red-sailed Aqua Luna, on Victoria Harbour.
Sails aside, it is a near mirror image of the Aqua Luna, though more posh thanks to newer furniture and a bigger bar area where guests are served all manner of drinks. Up close, the 27-meter boat looks nothing short of cinematic, with its polished wood decks and fan-like sails unfurling overhead. It’s a regal valediction from a consummate junk builder who dedicated his life to these historic boats. Originally from China, Au fled by bicycle to Macau during the second Sino-Japanese War when he was around five years old. He later made his way to Hong Kong, where his uncle taught him the trade, and eventually came to run Shau Kei Wan shipyard on the northeast corner of Hong Kong Island. While Au has passed his skills onto his son, the younger shipbuilder works mostly on repairing yachts, and doesn’t plan to take up the tradition due to increasing government regulations and a lack of demand. Though his father has another theory: “the new generation isn’t interested—they don’t like manual labor.”
Hong Kong is unlikely to see any more labors of love quite like this. “You have to be very precise with the wood cutting; even if it is one centimeter too short or too long, it could mean that you have to start all over again,” Au says. “It’s a trade that does not allow for mistakes.” The Aqua Luna II is a triumph of precision, and Au expects it to last 40 years—plenty of time for travelers to experience the journey. “I’m incredibly proud of the work I have done,” Au says. “This boat will leave a lasting impression, as junks have done on maritime history, of Hong Kong’s culture and heritage”.