(CNN) — On April 4, 1955, a massive crowd flocked to Taiwan’s Keelung Harbor.
Firecrackers were lit. Champagne corks popped. Speeches were made.
The celebratory atmosphere was a rare spectacle in Taiwan at the time. The island was in the midst of the first Taiwan Strait crisis against the Communists in mainland China, while the effects 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 name was bestowed by the governor of Taiwan — a reference to the ongoing battle with the mainland — who sponsored part of the adventure after reading about the crew’s ambitious plans in a newspaper. A special commemorative postmark was even created for the occasion.
Carrying the hopes and dreams of the six crew members and their supporters, this small junk boat with a politically laden name was about to set sail across the Pacific Ocean to compete in an international yacht race.
The event would kick off on the other side of the world, starting from Newport, Rhode Island in the US, ending across the Atlantic in Gothenburg, Sweden.
There was just one problem. What the revelers in Keelung Harbor didn’t realize was that none of the five Chinese crew, nor the American vice-consul who joined at the last minute, knew how 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 relatively wealthy family in China — his parents were among the few able to receive an education in the US.
His dad was a government railroad manager, meaning Chow spent his childhood hopping around cities.
In 1941, with the Japanese army pushing into the region, Chow’s mother took her four children 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 recalls in a recent interview with CNN Travel.
Chow and his brother dropped out of high school to join the army. They arrived at Myitkyina in Myanmar in 1944, where Allied forces would win an important battle at the Siege of Myitkyina. They were then flown back to China, fighting battles as they made their way to Japan-controlled Guangzhou. Just as they were about to launch an attack in Guangzhou, the Japanese army surrendered.
“So we didn’t attack Guangzhou. We marched into Guangzhou as victors,” says Chow.
After the war, he flew back to Shanghai to reunite with his mother.
“I came to the harbor. The first thing I noticed was the smell — ooouf — the smell of food,” says Chow.
The scents were coming from the fleet of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration — diesel boats brought from the United States to help 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 told my mother: ‘That’s it. I’m not going to college. 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” Loo-chi.
In 1949, the five fishermen were stranded in Taiwan when the Communists declared victory and took control on the mainland, leaving them cut off from their families.
They remained in Taiwan for the next few years, sharing an apartment in Keelung until one day in 1954, Chow saw a story in the newspaper about an international yacht race. He asked his fellow sea mates, “Do you think they would accept a Chinese junk to join?”
While working on a diesel boat for nine years, Chow fished alongside traditional Chinese junk boats. But never on one.
“One time in a big storm, we hauled our last net and rushed for shelter,” he says. “We put our 300-horsepower-diesel boat on full speed. The junk boat right next to us pulled up all their sails. By the time we got to the shelter, they already dropped their anchors and were 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 decided to write a letter to the newspaper that had featured the post.
Unexpectedly, he received 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 number: 320.
There was just one hiccup: Chow didn’t own a junk boat.
Find a boat, then a crew
With just a few months to spare, Chow traveled around Taiwan’s islands looking for a junk boat — he says he was almost caught in a fierce battle between the Communists and Nationalist (Kuomintang) armies on Yijiangshan island at one point — before returning to Keelung.
Then he saw 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 owner realized that it was the end of his career. Meanwhile, there was no other way for me to get a junk. So we were like the only boy and only girl on earth — the marriage was immediately 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 wouldn’t need those earthly belongings anymore,” says Chow.
Chow enlisted five shipmates. Chow was to be the navigator and the radio master. Marco Chung, being the “nicest guy,” 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 reasons why we couldn’t 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 have six bunks but only five people. How about let me join 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 sort 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 needed to be towed out of the harbor. Out of sight, out of trouble,” 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 were still in the same 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.
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. A big freighter came. It was like looking 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 just want 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 could 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 is going 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 were going to collide, so I started 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 ready to abandon ship yet?'”
“We just laughed. It was the freighter that left earlier,” says Chow, still amused by the situation.
“We just said, ‘Go away.'”
The big vessel circled the small junk for about an hour before turning on the floodlight and speaker again.
The broadcaster said, “Get ready to receive 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 reason, I guess, is because of the name Free China. It was supposed to represent Taiwan. What if Free China goes down? It would be a bad omen. Also, they were probably a bit concerned about our safety and their international image,” 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 have no rights to hold us because we didn’t do anything wrong and we aren’t smugglers. As soon as we tell you we are ready to go, you better let us 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 another 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 to visit last year and got stuck here for six months. Every day they said, ‘Boooring.’ That was our lives on the boat,” says Chow.
“On the junk, we fought like cats and dogs.”
He recalls one “almost mutiny” near the end of the journey when Hu, “the tai chi master,” swore to throw Chung, the captain and “nicest guy,” 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 were sailing in blind,” says Chow. “As the fog dispersed finally, we were only 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 originally had all these plans, continuing our journey to Sweden and then, the rest of Europe. But once we were landed, no one wanted to set foot on the boat again,” 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 girl he was introduced 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 “couldn’t even speak Cantonese well 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.
Hu flew back to Taiwan before emigrating to New Zealand later to become a fishing boat captain. He was given a Queen’s Service Medal in 2002 for his devotion to teaching tai chi. (But Chow thinks one of Hu’s most important but forgotten achievements was rescuing famed Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl at sea.)
Mehlert, after picking up “real spoken Chinese instead of intellectual Chinese” from his fellow shipmates, managed to avoid getting fired for taking two extra months off from work. He went on to became one of the three interpreters who accompanied President Nixon on his historic trip to China in 1972.
Chen and Chow decided to restart their lives in California together.
“Reno and I spent $500 and bought a used 1951 Buick to serve as our next home and tool to start another venture,” says Chow.
“Think of what a fun New Yorker was like in the 50s — that was Reno. He loves dancing, drinking and smoking. He was a college drop-out, much better than the rest of us — who were only high school 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 everyone’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 have been trying to keep in touch with their wives and children,” 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 need to talk 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.
Half a century after its first crossing, in 2012 the Free China made its way across the Pacific Ocean again. This time, though, it got there via a mix of tow trucks and cargo ships. A documentary was made about its return.
It’s now undergoing preservation in the National Ocean University of Taiwan in Keelung and is the oldest known surviving Chinese junk boat in the world.
Chen often compares her own journey with the Free China to the original crew’s wild adventure.
“It seemed like either of the trips were a combination of luck. But it was about making your own 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 mean, I think my father would have loved it if I had saved the boat before…”
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 think it’s very important to save immigrant history. The point is that Asian American history is American history — not something separate. It’s especially relevant now because of the anti-Asian hate,” says Chen.
“Growing up in America, I didn’t think it was cool to be Chinese. I do feel prouder now. I am proud of my parents and what my dad did to pursue the American dream.”