The Free China Junk

“We did not even know how to sail in the big wide ocean – not to talk about in a narrow channel.”
Director: Robin Greenberg
Year: 2010
Country: New Zealand
Running time: 100 mins
New Zealand/USA
Producer: Robin Greenberg
Associate producers: Michele Turnure-Salleo, Gavin Laurie
Photography/Sound: Clay Westervelt, Christian Bruno, John Chrisstoffels
Archival footage: Calvin Mehlert
Editor: Gavin Laurie
Additional sound: George Turnure
Music: Jim Kimo West
Colour and B&W/DigiBeta

With: Paul Chow, Loo-Chi Hu (aka Huloo), Reno Chen, Marco Chung, Benny Hsu, Calvin Mehlert, Hans Van Tilburg, Charles Mehlert

New Zealand filmmaker Robin Greenberg uncovers the remarkable adventure of five young fishermen who set off from Taiwan in 1955 intending to cross the Pacific in an old junk. The plan: to sail to San Francisco, then haul the boat across the US to take part in a trans-Atlantic yacht race. Though none of them had any experience of junks or the open sea, they charmed the notoriously xenophobic government of the day into not only permitting their improbable project, but also attaching the country’s name – Free China – to the ill-equipped boat.

US-born Greenberg first met Loo-Chi Hu, one of these adventurers, in Christchurch in the late 80s, by which time Hu was an internationally respected mariner and Tai Chi master. In researching Huloo (NZIFF08), her portrait of this deeply charming man, she interviewed the three surviving fellow crew. They in turn pointed her to Calvin Mehlert, the young American vice-consul who had issued their US visas, then asked to join and film the voyage – on vibrant colour stock supplied by the CIA.

The political reverberations of their exploits are implicit in Greenberg’s account, but it’s the personal tales that animate her film. The old sailors speak with the sharp good humour of men who have lived life to the fullest and can look back with zero sentimentality at their youthful cockiness: apparently bristling egos and the absence of team spirit didn’t hamper their progress one bit. The American diplomat takes a rosier view, but it’s his beautiful footage of lithe, antsy young men scrambling across the ocean that renders their dash for freedom as eternally fresh as the voyage of the Argonauts. — BG

“It'd be hard not to be entertained by this doco.” — Darren Bevan,

>Click here to watch the trailer for The Free China Junk on  

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