Rebuilding the Tong-An Ships

Ever heard of the Tong-an ships?


Well until recently neither had I…. and I’m a maritime archaeologist!!

I’ve heard of shipbuilding being undertaken in Tong-an, but nothing specifically about a Tong-an ship. In the past my research has been more focused on the Treasure Fleets of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), so I was naturally a little curious.

It turns out the Tong-an ships were named simply because they were constructed in Tong-an county of China’s Fujian province. These were large traditional wooden sailing vessels (think large ‘junk’) which emerged in the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) following the Ming ban on seafaring.

The Tong-an ships were widely used by merchants and pirates, such as the famous Chinese pirate Cheung Po-tsai, before becoming the mainstay of the Qing Navy and the backbone of China’s coastal defence. Although considered by China to be the most significant vessels of their time, the Tong-an ships had until recently slipped from our collective memory. How? I do not know.

Staircase leading to the exhibition

These vessels are historically significant not only for China for the entire East Asian region. They were an active part of a power struggle that played out in the South China Sea for centuries and one that is being replicated today.

Thanks to some incredible work by the National Palace Museum (NPM) Taiwan, the Tong-an ships have been brought back to life in Rebuilding the Tong-an Ships, a new media art exhibition at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) and its been getting rave reviews.

Last week I was lucky enough to find myself in Hong Kong, so thought I should go and find out what all the fuss was about. I’m glad I did. This exhibition is INCREDIBLE!!

Augmented reality Qing clothing change installation

Originally envisioned by NPM as a museum without walls, this innovate exhibition is designed to present a first-rate collection of Chinese art and cultural treasures to the world.

NPM partnered with CityU to bring the exhibition to Hong Kong and the results are tremendous. The exhibition has 16 installations in total, three of which were developed by CityU’s School of Creative Media: Linear Navigator of Chinese Maritime History; Paint and Sail your Tong-an Ship; and Pacifying the South China Sea.

The Hong Kong Maritime Museum has made some important contributions, providing the Pacifying the South China Sea scroll so that it could be both digitised and displayed.

Digitised video of the Pacifying the South China Sea Scroll

There is also the award-winning Rebuilding the Tong-an Ships documentary, following the NPM’s journey to salvage the long forgotten history of the Tong-an ships. At 50-minutes, it’s a little long for an exhibition, but well worth a watch.

I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour and if you have seen my posts posts and tweets – you’ll know I fell in love with this exhibition immediately. It is a wonderful, movable feast of technology and humanism and it captures aspects of Qing maritime culture perfectly.

Technologically, the exhibition features installations using a holographic projection, naked-eye 3D, augmented reality and Kinect sensor technology to reinterpret the rise and fall of the Tong-an ships in Chinese Maritime History.

Puppeteering the Tong-an ships with a magic stylus

Rebuilding the Tong-an Ships presents a splendid recreation of the heyday of East Asian maritime culture during the 19th century and the historical elegance of the Tong-an ships. It is a totally immersive exhibition like no other I have seen.

In a world where, writes Dr Lynda Kelly, in order to stay connected with its audiences, a 21st century museum must be a flexible, vibrant, changing space and a house full of ideas, this is in many ways a museum without walls and one which captured my imagination completely. It was SO good I didn’t want to leave!

I could go on all day about this, but I won’t. Suffice to say this is a MUST do. Not only for those interested in the nuances of maritime history, archaeology or museum curation, but for anyone in Hong Kong who wants a fantastic day out. It is an archaeology adventure without the hard work and one, which is just as exciting. It will keep me, coming back time and time again!

Breaking Waves the 3D Tong-an fighting ship simulator

Rebuilding the Tong-an Ships New Media Exhibition is located at 3/F, Academic 3, City University of Hong Kong, Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR.

I found the MTR the easiest way to get there, exiting at the Kowloon Tong station on the Kwun Tong (green) line.

You can contact the exhibition organisers’ via the Tong-An Ship Facebook page, or pay a virtual visit at here. The exhibition is now open by appointment only, every day except Thursday.

Want to share your own adventure in archaeology? Connect with me on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and Google Plus and don’t forget to leave your comments below.

As ever.


About Sarah Ward

I’m Sarah Ward, an archaeologist, commercial diver and factual presenter with 15 years experience, both in and out of the water. I’ve investigated sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the modern, across more than 20 countries. I am on a mission to bring archaeology to a broader audience, helping people to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

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(c) Indiana Sarah 2019