[Interview] Dione Chen on Saving the Last Surviving Chinese "Junk" Boat

Posted on: May 18th, 2012 by David Garber 4 Comments

You might be asking yourself, "What does a Chinese boat have to do with historic preservation in America?" It's a valid question. But at some point along the way, many of us came to America from someplace else, and this story is about the boat that brought San Francisco native Dione Chen's father here from Taiwan in 1955.

Truth be told, Dione Chen wasn't really even thinking in "preservation" terms when she started advocating to save the Free China, the Chinese "junk"-style boat that her late father sailed on in 1955 with a Chinese and American crew participating in a yacht race across the Pacific. She initially wanted to save the boat mostly because it reminded her of her dad, his interests, and his resourceful idea to participate in the race as a means to a more prosperous future in a new country -- and didn't want the story of his trip to be forgotten. Her resolve only deepened upon discovering that it was one of, if not the, last remaining junks of its kind in the world.

Toasting the Free China's future. From left: John Muir (from the National Park Service and an advisor to Chinese Junk Preservation), Paul Chow (Free China crew member), Calvin Mehlert (Free China crew member), Vera Chow, Iris Chen (widow of crew member Reno Chen), Dione Chen (daughter of crew member Reno Chen and founder of Chinese Junk Preservation), Nguyet Mehlert, and Byron Chung (son of the late crew member Marco Chung).

Dione's journey to save the junk began in September 2007 after visiting the yard where it was being stored -- and seeing its dwindling condition -- with her family after her father's death. In 2008, she launched a nonprofit, Chinese Junk Preservation, recruited advisory council members, and applied for financial support from the National Park Service, the National Trust, and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

After a couple of years trying to woo someone in San Francisco -- or even elsewhere in the United States -- to restore and display the junk, she reached out to entities in Taiwan, where the junk originated, and where a maritime museum in the city of Keelung finally offered assistance. On April 30, 2012, the junk was hoisted onto a massive cargo ship to Keelung, where it arrived yesterday.

I had the chance to talk with Dione about her story, her introduction to preservation, and her advice to people interested saving something or someplace that's important to them.

Have you always been fascinated with the history and future of the junk?

Growing up, I took the junk and its history for granted.  It was "old history." So, no, I can't honestly say I was "fascinated" by the junk. Proud of my dad's story and his pursuit of the "American dream" -- yes. But no, I never had dreams of saving it before my dad died.

I'm sure my dad was disappointed that I didn't ask him more about his life and the junk when he was alive. This is something I regret.  I've been asked what my dad would think about my efforts to save the junk.  I believe that he would have been surprised and proud.  Surprised because he was resigned that no one was interested enough in the junk to save it.  Proud that so many people want to see the Free China junk saved.

I suspect it's often the case that one doesn't fully realize what is "history" worth saving, because we're so busy living in the present.

The Free China on its original journey to the United States in 1955.

Would you consider yourself a preservationist? Why or why not?

I am not familiar with the term "preservationist" as a vocation/calling, so would not consider myself one.  If anything, I am an "accidental preservationist" -- I am well aware that I lack formal training or experience in preservation.

I realized that the junk -- something of historical importance -- should be saved, hopefully could be saved but was in fact destined for destruction. And I thought that I should and could do something to save it because no one else was going to do it.  In hindsight -- with the past 4 years of experience behind me -- I would say that I am someone who has come to realize the important role that each of us can play in preserving history.

Ideally, everyone would consider it their privilege and responsibility to preserve the places, stories, and things that are part of our individual and collective history. Each of has a role in determining what values, stories, and lessons are passed on to future generations. You don't have to be a "professional" historian or archaeologist to step up. 

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned during this process?

First, it's really tough to save a slice of history. You must be persistent, energetic, creative, pragmatic.

Second, you can't assume others will save history for you.

Third, create a mini-business plan for how you will proceed and succeed. It's important to identify strengths, weaknesses, partners, opportunities, and customers -- and to use your resources wisely. You have a better chance of garnering support if you have done your research, have a sound plan, and a decent shot at success.

Who and what do you hope this preservation story inspires?

I would like to inspire people to explore their own family histories before it's too late (e.g. a loved one dies, a building is destroyed, or a story is forgotten).  Everyone has an amazing history. I hope that knowing their past will shape how people think, act, vote, and treat others in their family and communities today.  If anything, appreciating history makes you appreciate what you have today, and question the tendency we all have to make assumptions about other people, cultures, and places.

If you could give a piece of advice or encouragement to someone deep into their own preservation advocacy story, what would it be?

Be resourceful, open, and optimistic in seeking out smart, supportive people and organizations who can help you. Don't go it alone.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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4 Responses

  1. Steven W Lindsey

    May 18, 2012

    It is good to see the National Trust finally do something on our maritime heritage. It seems the trust’s interest in such matters had fallen off precipitously in recent years.

    Another historic vessel, the WW II ship Mohawk is to be sunk shortly off of Sanibel Island, Florida as an artificial reef. It was “rescued” from scrapping ten years ago via a Preservation911 entry.

    See: http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/911/wwii-ship-awaits-fate.html

    Hon. Steven W Lindsey
    state rep
    Keene, NH
    (And former coastguardsman)

  2. Joseph McGill

    May 19, 2012

    My kind of preservation.

  3. W. White

    May 22, 2012

    To Steven W Lindsey,

    Actually, unless I am misreading this post, it does not appear that the National Trust did anything to aid Dione Chen in saving this junk. The story states, “In 2008, she launched a nonprofit, Chinese Junk Preservation, recruited advisory council members, and applied for financial support from the National Park Service, the National Trust, and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

    “After a couple of years trying to woo someone in San Francisco — or even elsewhere in the United States — to restore and display the junk, she reached out to entities in Taiwan, where the junk originated, and where a maritime museum in the city of Keelung finally offered assistance.”

    She merely applied for assistance from the National Trust. There is nothing in that statement that indicates the National Trust did anything to help her. This does not surprise me, the National Trust seems to do less and less every year to help preservationists since Richard Moe retired. However, now that Dione Chen has successfully saved the Free China, the National Trust can place her success story on their blog as if they had a hand in preserving the boat.

    I hope the USCGC Mohawk (WPG-78) is preserved. It should have been preserved permanently in 2001, not at the eleventh hour in 2012. It is a shame there is not a national preservation organization that you can turn to for constructive help on the matter.

  4. Steven W Lindsey

    May 22, 2012

    Sadly the Mohawk is to scuttled miles of of Sanibel Island, Florida in the next week or so according to press reports, as a dive site and tourist attraction. While I prefer this fate to outright scrapping, it is still a major loss of our maritime heritage. I believe the Key West owners should have tried to pass it on to another donor port city rather than reef it.

    Two other historic coast guard cutters also face dim futures. The USCGC Glacier and the USCGC Bramble.

    And yes, the Trust, in its post-Moe period, seems to have withdrawn its support from grass-roots preservation projects. Sadly at a time when the Great Recession is making preservation far more expensive, both fiscally as well as politically.

    Instead, the Trust seems worked up over “green” buildings. This is popular in the Beltway, but for those of us carrying on in the hinterland, we feel abandoned to our separate and individual fates.