Thursday, December 2, 1999
A unique collection of model Chinese sailing ships, or "junks," on display at Monterey''s Maritime Museum beginning this weekend, provides a fascinating glimpse into a bygone world.
"Floating Treasures from the East," which runs at least through next summer, is the first of a series of rotating exhibits at the museum, and spotlights almost two dozen tiny model ships handmade in China during the 1920s and ''30s. It is a rare opportunity for the public to view such a collection, which was difficult to assemble, according to museum Marketing Director Maia Carroll.
The museum had to use great care when arranging the models. "The junks are very fragile," Carroll says. "Sails made of silk are so old that your finger could go right through them. They are irreplaceable, as this truly is a lost art." Very few museums in the world have such a collection, she points out.
That the miniature junks even exist is due to the creativity of an American collector, the late H. Royce Greatwood. Greatwood, born in 1896, spent many years working for an oil company in Asia where his childhood love of ships peaked in China. He became fascinated by Chinese junks, and commissioned actual boat builders to make replicas of their crafts.
Greatwood "was half-English gentleman, half-Californian," says his granddaughter, Binth Rustead. "He always made time for others, mentoring young people." Rustead remembers him hunched over his beloved models, with a long set of tweezers in one huge hand, magnifying glass in the other, patiently repairing tiny riggings. (The museum has provided magnifying glasses at the exhibit to enable visitors to view the models'' miniscule details.)
When Greatwood and his wife retired to Carmel in the 1970s, they found their home too small to display the 25 models in their collection. Greatwood donated the junks to the Maritime Museum in 1972, which last exhibited them almost a decade ago.
In China, junks combine functionality with highly detailed decorative painting and carving. They vary in decoration depending on their purpose, which could range from police junks to ceremonial junks to fishing junks. The models collected by Greatwood "open a window into what life was like at that time," says Carroll.
For this current exhibit, 18 models are on display, including a few ships that are not technically junks. Some of the more interesting specimens include a Changsa River wooden police junk. The history of these boats dates back to the 1860s, when police patrolled the Yangtze River enforcing customs duties.
Another on display is the Hangchow fishing junk, designed to withstand the 30-foot waves that came in with the tide in Hangchow Bay. These junks were often painted with a dragon head on the bow in bright colors, with Chinese charms symbolizing universal harmony on the sides. Greatwood''s model has a phoenix in flight painted on the stern, representing peace, wealth and beauty, traits perhaps representative of the man himself.
Floating Treasures from the East opens at Monterey''s Maritime Museum in Custom House Plaza with a reception Saturday from 6-8pm. Admission is $3/adults; $2/youth, seniors and military; children under 12 are free. Educational programs are scheduled from Jan. 22 through May. Call 372-2608 or visit www.mntmh.org.