The Keying [Ch'i-ying]

“The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh (1814–1885), depicting the Junk Keying moored in New York Harbor in 1847 (watercolor on canvas, c. 1853–1855, Museum of the City of New York).

There are many types of sea-going Chinese Junks. They usually have a high stern and overhanging bow, square on deck but fine at the waterline. They have no keels but a deep rudder lowered in a trunk, and from two to five masts and lug sails stiffened with battens which can be quickly reefed. The hold is divided into water right compartments and let out to merchants. The inland river trade of China is also carried by junks of many varieties. In 1851 the Great exhibition was visited by the Keying, a junk of 400 tons sailing from Canton to Landon via New York.

‘Keying’ was the first Chinese junk which sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. This painting of the junk by an unknown artist in Hong Kong represents the sole Chinese record of the vessel. ‘Keying’ sailed from Hong Kong in December 1846, targeting for London.

The Chinese junk Keying: length 160 ft breadth 33 ft burden 800 tons depth of hold 12 feet. This remarkable vessel is a junk of the largest class, and is the first ship constructed by the Chinese which has reached Europe or even rounded the Cape of Good Hope. This junk was purchased August, 1846, at Canton, by a few enterprising Englishmen. She sailed from Hong Kong, 6th December, 1846, rounded the cape 31st March, 1847, arrived in England 27th march, 1848.

The Keying was a three-masted Chinese trading junk that sailed from Hong Kong in December 1847 with a mixed crew of Chinese and British sailors. The vessel had been purchased surreptitiously by a conglomerate of enterprising English businessmen. It was placed under the command of Captain Alfred Kellett with the intention of carrying curiosities and merchandise to England and thereafter serving as a kind of floating museum. The avaricious Kellett neglected to tell the Chinese crew members that they were embarking on such an extended journey, and by the time the Keying rounded the Cape of Good Hope, they were more or less mutinous. After some bad weather and with supplies running short, the vessel was forced to make an unscheduled stopover in New York City. When the Keying sailed into the harbor on July 9, 1847, it created a sensation. Since at least the late eighteenth-century, Americans had exhibited a fascination with China that only increased as trade relations expanded in the nineteenth century. Tea was of course the most coveted commodity, but Chinese porcelain, silk, and other luxury goods were also much sought after. The Keying brought the “romance of China” to New York City, and the public lined up to pay fifty cents to tour the vessel and peruse its displays.

This watercolor by Samuel Waugh shows the Keying anchored just offshore from Castle Garden, where it remained for several months in 1847. Kellett was coining money, but the Chinese crew used the opportunity to take him to court for his duplicity and general meanness. Although they received a favorable ruling and many of the crew elected to head back to China, Kellett skipped town to escape his obligations, making first for Boston and then crossing the Atlantic the following spring.

In late March 1848, the Keying arrived in London to great fanfare, and several different medals were struck to commemorate its appearance and to sell to the public as souvenirs. If anything, the Chinese junk created an even bigger sensation in England, where it was visited by the Queen, Charles Dickens, and other luminaries. The Keying remained a popular attraction for several years, but later fell into disrepair and it was eventually dismantled. For a description of the vessel, the voyage, and the objects it contained, click on the image at left to page through the promotional pamphlet that Kettell published in London. 

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