Adventurous lensman takes on the high seas

HE is well known as a photographer, but you could call him an adventurer as well. Deke Erh is one of China’s foremost photographers who has been exploring the ancient Silk Road for 17 years.

It has been a one-man journey, an odyssey that has taken in history, culture, relics and people.

For the last three years, he has been focusing on the maritime Silk Road, insisting that sailing was a unique way to “fight against the erosion of time.”

Taking his adventurism a bit further, Erh and his wife have invested in a boat that began construction in Ningde, Fujiang Province, from Thursday.

The wooden boat is a copy of the ancient Fortune Boat from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and will have splendid patterns plus a smart watertight cabin design.

“This boat will remind people of ancient China’s glorious seafaring tradition,” he says.

Erh says the boat will cost about several million yuan and is expected to be ready in eight months.

“I seem to be addicted to the sea as it widens my life scope and makes me thoroughly understand the spirit of never giving up,” he says.

In the past three years, Erh has sailed the entire South China Sea and experienced Chinese traditional culture in its vicinity.

He is already well known for documenting Shanghai’s history and the tumultuous changes through his photographs on architecture, streets and people.

Erh was sensitive to the value of history and artifacts as he watched people dump the old things and embrace the new concepts during China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s.

His published books include “A Last Look — Western Architecture in Old Shanghai” and “Old Villas in Shanghai.” In the following years, he has also shown interest in diverse subjects such as the old Shanghai American School and the history of Zhujiajiao watertown, publishing as many as 50 picture books.

But recording the vicissitudes of one city was not enough to satisfy Erh’s boundless curiosity.

He was determined to do things differently despite his fame as a photographer.

For him, hitting the ocean presents its own unique challenges. “Every decision on the sea is detrimental, and if one wants to survive on the sea, he must know each move would decide the lives of all the people on the boat.”

Erh recalls encountering problems with the engine, mainsail and headsail (which fell in the sea) while on a voyage to Singapore a few years ago. He had to float on the water for seven days and nights.

“When we finally got to land, I had turned into a white-bearded old man,” he says.

Despite the dangers, Erh’s high-seas adventures have taken him to destinations like Nagasaki, Okinawa, Hong Kong, Macau, Subic and Malacca.

On reaching the destinations, the photographer takes notes about the local people, customs and culture.

“One thing that impressed me most is the Chinese cultural heritage in these cities, which are reflected in the costumes, architectures, food, music and literature,” he says. “It draws me to make further exploration.”

Erh has accumulated abundant historical materials and pictures on his Silk Road sojourn.

“This is a huge project and demands a systematic survey and study. Perhaps it would consume the rest of my life,” he says.

Q: Why did you name your boat “Old China Hand?”

A: It is the name of my bookstore that I opened in Shanghai 21 years ago. For me, the name is like a symbol for inheriting the tradition and spreading it wide.

Q: Why are you spending such a vast amount of money on this wooden boat?

A: Ancient China led in shipbuilding technology. China has four great inventions, and the fifth is boat-building. During the trading season, those wooden boats sailed under the movement of the ocean current, which helped in spreading early Chinese civilization and technology along the sailing route.

For example, when a boat arrived in a port in ancient times, it was similar to a huge press conference. People of different lands would discover the history, culture, local specialties from a distant land.

During one of my trips several years ago, I met a European who told me that there was not a single boat from China that had docked at their harbor in the past 100 years. In my eyes, the ancient shipbuilding technology in China is fading and really needs to be preserved.

Q: Why did you choose Ningde to make this boat?

A: Ningde used to be an important harbor on the maritime Silk Road. It also has a long history of making wooden boats. Old China Hand is a model of the ancient Fortune Boat from the Song Dynasty. In fact, the ancient boat made in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) had the earliest watertight cabin. In fact, the technique of making a watertight cabin boat has been listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in both 2008 and 2010.

The workers in Ningde actually come from a shipbuilding family … They are now the 23rd generation. They are very skilled in making watertight compartment boats.

Q: The patterns of Old China Hand are quite impressive. Do they have any special meaning?

A: They are copied from the patterns found in the ancient boat. There is a fish eye at the bow of the boat, meaning that the boat is able to identify the hidden reef and rocks in the sea. While at the stern of the boat, the patterns are said to be the treasures owned by the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology such as a sword, a basket of flowers and a fan. Each immortal’s power can be transferred to a power tool that can bestow life or destroy evil. These patterns are blessings for a safe journey on the sea.

Q: Several years ago, you said that you dreamed of sailing in an ancient boat around the world. Will you use this Old China Hand in the future?

A: The Old China Hand, along with another boat that is also under construction at the same time, has been listed on the protection list of the intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO. Based on our plan, the boat will travel to the harbor closest to the UNESCO’s headquarters. It will display the historical relevance and the strong vitality of traditional Chinese wooden boats. Of course, I will add some modern equipment such as GPS on the boat so that it will take me far into the sea.

Q: What does sailing mean to you?

A: Growing up in Shanghai, I am quite curious about ancient China’s relationships with the rest of the world.

The collision between the East and the West through culture and trade always fascinated me — on the road and on the sea.