Thursday, September 8, 2011


My tutors on board the Jin Jiang

By now you’ve probably guessed that given a choice between the well trodden and the largely unknown I will inevitably choose the latter.

I was in Hong Kong simply because I love the city; I could never tire of its many nooks and crannies, sights and mostly delightful smells.  On this occasion I had wandered down to the overseas terminal where passenger carrying ships departed for Japan and coastal mainland China.  I thumbed down the departure lists for the next few days and saw an entry for a liner called the Jin Jiang leaving next morning for Shanghai and beyond to Kobe in Japan. 

The fare was exceptionally reasonable, I had never been to Shanghai and thought, what the hell!  I booked a cabin quickly before I had time to think twice and raced back to the hotel to pack and touch base with the Reluctant Traveller back home in Brisbane.  He did like to know where I thought I might be at any given time.

A small launch took passengers out to the Jin Jiang anchored some way out from the terminal.  The sun was shining brightly, and for a moment as we approached closer to the vessel I thought it looked somehow familiar.

Once aboard I found I had a delightful single cabin to myself and glancing around again I thought, goodness these big ships must all be the same. The decor kept ringing bells deep down in my memory.  Then exploring the cabin’s drawers I found the shipping company’s information pamphlet and in an instant dawn broke.  

I had sailed on this ship before; many years before with my mother when the vessel was the extremely luxurious and frightfully expensive American liner the S.S. Mariposa. A Chinese shipping entrepreneur had snapped up the aging vessel  in a bargain sale and it was now plying the lucrative China Japan route.

I immediately set out to explore.  Yep, the main staircase and the lifts were as I remembered, so too the pursers desk, though now I was told I would take my meals in the foreign passengers section which I suspected had once been the officers mess. 

Then down to the lounge and the amazing discovery that nothing, I repeat nothing had been changed.  The huge mosaic motif behind the stage area was as it had been since the first day the ship was commissioned: the carpet, the lounge seats, the curtains were all purely vintage Mariposa and reeked of Yankee opulence.  Only the passengers and crew were so very different.

Where formerly wealthy Americans and their expensively gowned partners had dined or been entertained in the first class saloons were now Chinese from all walks of life; some ladies were adorned with curling rollers, one gentleman looked comfortable strolling through the public rooms in his striped bedroom pyjamas.  Where once we chose reading material from an extensive library was now a bank of one armed bandits.

Where I paraded in impromptu fancy dress as a tramp, I was now entertained by a Chinese pianist of note and a Hong Kong comedian.  Piano and mural were the same.

My dining companions in the foreign passengers restaurant were three others, all American.   Four westerners amid a passenger list of Chinese Americans, Japanese, and mainland Chinese. I badly wanted to join the latter in their vast noisy dining room.
A large number of those aboard were soon caught up in the frenzy of Mah Jong and I was fascinated.  Like Bridge and Chess this was a game I had never mastered.  It looked fun and I asked a man who seemed friendly if I could join in and possibly learn what the game was all about.

He was an American Chinese heading to Shanghai to visit his ancestors, all long dead and in the family crypt.   Well, he said, Maj Jong is a full on game and I doubt any of the older players would welcome a newcomer; perhaps though we could find a younger passenger to teach you the basics. 
I met my tutors later that afternoon; they turned out to be two small polite youngsters sporting broad Yankee accents and absolute whiz kids at the game.  No more than nine or ten years, all they lacked was patience, or maybe I just wasn’t a very bright student.

 After a morning and night of tuition I still couldn’t make head or tail of the game.

 On board the Mariposa before it became the Jin Jiang
Circa 1968


SHANGHAI: The highlight of that 1990's cruise through the China Sea was the Jin Jiang’s eventual entry into the Yellow River delta.  Along with a handful of passengers I was up and dressed well before first light. 
The Jin Jiang arrived at its waiting position some time after midnight, kept at anchor in a holding pattern along with countless other vessels; ships navigation lights showing dimly through the gloom, all awaiting the first light of dawn and their turn to begin the slow journey up river.

A sinking moon was doing its best to shine through low cloud.  In the dark hours before the dawn the sky gradually began to change to a murky red, all was calm and deathly quiet. We few observers talked in whispers.

Then as if by divine intervention a gentle fog wafted in a faint zephyr of breeze, muffling the clanging noise as numerous anchor chains were cranked from the depths, and engines,  one by one began throbbing with life.  The Jin Jiang’s turn finally came and we slowly edged up the wide delta reach of the Yellow River; an odd procession of vessels, tramp steamers, cargo ships, old work horses begrimed and bowed, and us.  Ahead a large masted junk,wooden bows high above the water, red sails afurl, made way; ashore rusting hulks at permanent anchor loomed like the ghost ships they were. 

The smells and chatter of China pervaded the air, garlic, earthy loam, musk and the aroma of herbs and of life itself.  The Jin Jiang made steady but slow progress, bare river banks gave way to old wooden house boats left rocking in our wake; then to shacks and low buildings, until the city itself began to emerge through a haze and with it came the clamour and complexity of urban life.
On board the ship was springing to life, the bark of command, sounds of crew and passengers and excited children, footsteps clattering; the expectant thrill of arrival. And suddenly we were there, a wharf with a huddle of sheds and offices, behind them tall buildings.

 I stepped ashore breathing in the atmosphere and history and immediately felt  myself caught up in the ever changing legend of old Shanghai.


Robyn Mortimer