Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 21, 2020

On a Junket to a Junk

On two memorable occasions, more than a dozen years apart, I traveled to Hong Kong on business. Pictured below, during the second, in 2005, cinematographer Laurie is working to get a shot of the iconic Star Ferry from the Kowloon, or mainland, side of Victoria Harbor.

Here’s the Star Ferry

I was there to shoot video interviews and supporting footage for my employer’s HK operations. The metropolis is a fascinating place to photograph, whether or not you have a professional camera crew. Late that same day, we were high on a peak on the island, across the harbor, to get a shot of the city as lights came on.

I can do my best to assure you this trip involved a great deal of hard work during long days, hauling people and gear all over Hong Kong, in and out of offices to set up, shoot interviews and depict the work done there. Still, the picturesque scenes above make it look like I was on a fairly cushy junket.

That’s an interesting word. Before I get to “junket,” I’ll go back down to Victoria Harbor.

There, another waterborne icon of Hong Kong, featured in uncountable travelogues and tourism brochures, is the last of its kind: a traditional sailboat known as a junk. I’ve seen it, but never with an opportunity to photograph it, so I’ll rely on a news image.

According to at this link, Hong Kong’s junk, named Dukling, long a popular tourist attraction, is the victim of a severe downturn in travel, due to the double jeopardy of pandemic and certain political events, about which I will avoid comment. Dukling’s future is at risk.

Why Is a Boat a “Junk?”

According to BBC, the word comes from Dutch jonk and Spanish junco, terms for sailing vessels in the Colonial period.

That’s correct, but it’s only part of the story.

Before the Dutch, Portuguese (who also have junco) and Spanish began to establish trading operations in China, they were in Java and the Malay Peninsula. There, in the 16th century, they encountered the Javanese term djong and Malay adjong, both generic terms for larger boats.

The association of those words with large sailboats (Dukling is 18 meters/59 feet long), was already well established, at least as early as the 13th century, before Europeans adopted the words into their languages.

All that Other Junk

The more common use of “junk” in English, which denotes … well … “stuff” or “trash” or … any number of other things, including slang for heroin, is unrelated to the term for the sailboat, with a separate etymology.

Coincidentally, it also has a nautical origin.

In Middle English, jonk was the term for old or worn rope or cable aboard ships. That “junk” would be put to a number of uses, including “fenders” alongside a boat, to prevent rubbing against docks or other ships, caulking leaks, and other purposes.

Over time, the term was applied to any cast-off material. The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary hilariously note that there are myriad uses of the word junk, perhaps because the world is so full of it.


I was on a junket on those trips to Hong Kong, in one sense of the word. It can mean a trip or tour for some purpose, whether business, politics, etc.

Before that definition of junket arose, there was a prior meaning, denoting a party or banquet. Even earlier in the language, the first definition provided in some dictionaries tells us that junket is a creamy cheese or dessert. From dessert to party to trip: interesting.

That gets us back to the near edge of Middle Ages and Middle English.

Before that, though, some cream cheese was made or molded in woven rush baskets. Those rushes and baskets made from them were both referred to in a variety of spellings too numerous to list in a short piece, all resembling “junk.” Among them are jonk or jonc and jonket, jonkette and others.

The source of those words in Middle English, around 1400, may have been Old French, Old Norman, Italian or … even the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were uncertain.

Speakers of English are accustomed to the notion that words that look and sound alike may have completely different meanings, and even have distinctive etymologies. “Junk,” meaning rushes or old rope, and “junket,” meaning either a basket or the cheese made in it are examples. OED doesn’t think their first definition of “junk” — rush — and the second — old rope — are directly related: They’re two words that look and sound alike, with no indication they share a historical relationship.

If you’re reading from Hong Kong (should you still have Internet access), I hope you get an occasional look at Dukling, maybe while you ride the Star Ferry. I hope to return to your amazing city, whether or not I’m on a junket. I wish you well there.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Star Ferry photo by mailer_diablo – Self-taken (Unmodified), CC BY-SA 3.0, BBC article cited above retrieved on November 20, 2020. Junk photo is the property of BBC. Dictionaries cited are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin; Boston, New York, 2000 and Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971


  1. So, a junket isn’t just a small piece of junk?

    Thanks Brad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No more than a toilet is a small toy.


  2. It’s a shame what has happened to Hong Kong. If only the British had held onto it….

    When I was a kid, my mother used to make Junket rennet custard:

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I thought I could accomplish any good, I’d say more about what’s happening in HK. “Junket” as a dessert was new to me. Funny, what you learn when you actually read about things. Nice to hear from you. Thank you.


      • For my whole life I’ve been appalled that so many Americans of a certain political creed have had a soft spot for collectivist dictatorships.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll comment in accord with that, if you’d care to email me at I’m stuck with my decade-long assertion that this is a non-political blog.


  3. That was quite a winding road. Thanks for the tours. HK has changed a lot since I was last there some 40 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed. And changing more, now. I’m glad you got to see it with someone who knew it so well.


      • The Junk’s sails are partially made of bamboo and are separately adjustable to account for changing wind conditions.

        Did you see the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong harbor when you were there? I still remember the dinner I had there decades ago. Amazing!

        Historical note: The Eurocentric view drilled into us since infancy is that Columbus was the first to have discovered America. However, more recent scholarship has begun to challenge this view and asserts that America may have first been discovered by the Chinese, both by land and by sea. Chinese Junks have a long history of trade dating from the Middle Ages, far predating Columbus. The problem here is that Europeans were much better than the Chinese at keeping written records of their explorations, which were mainly undertaken for acquisition of other lands’ resources (hence the colonies established in America and elsewhere by many European powers). Whereas, the Chinese had no such reason to seek out far distant lands and thus accidentally discover a new continent like Columbus did.

        P.S. Your “toilet” reply. That’s pretty funny.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I deputize you to write a post about the physical and technical aspects of the junk. I was tempted to get into them, but A) I’m no sailor and B) I ran out of space.
        I think there’s still a lot to know about how humans traveled to pretty much every continent. Agreed, those of us of Euro descent have relied on our own history.
        I’ve never seen Jumbo. On my first trip, I was one of a number of show producers for a large company meeting (that Dayton company), and the attendees or some of them had an outing to Jumbo, but I was somewhere in the bowels of the convention center, programming 35mm slides for the next day’s show.


  4. We mustn’t forget junk bonds and junk science — or the delicious Danish Dessert made by the Junket company. It’s still available, and every now and then I pick up a box of my favorite: the raspberry. It’s rather like the fruit soup that my Swedish grandmother made, although the Junket company’s treat is based on Rødgrød, the traditional red berry pudding that’s common in Denmark.

    I’m perplexed by junco. That’s also the name of a bird, and the Online Etymology Dictionary says it’s derived from Modern Latin junco (“reed, bush”), and in turn from Latin iuncus, or “reed, rush.” When I made a run at translating the Spanish junco, I got ‘reed’ as the translation. So… how did junco come to designate a boat? Were they made of reeds in earlier times?

    This could be easier than I’m making it, or I might just be confused. I read that the Duk Ling’s name means ‘clever duck.’ It’s going to have to be very clever, indeed, to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll admit, this has been one of the most baffling of exercises for this amateur etymologist. The word “rush” keeps winding in and out of several languages associated with some form of “junc-“. What I think OED and other are getting at is that the Spanish (and probably Portuguese) word for the boat is not associated with the preexisting word, but simply became a homophone, and you knew it was a ship by context. It’s POSSIBLE to conceive that those sailors saw some association between “rush” and the bamboo sails, but that is sheer speculation on my part.
      And I didn’t get far enough to probe “Duk Ling,” and I hope that’s true! Thank you.
      I know none of those desserts, so I’m off to learn more.


  5. PBS had a great show recently.
    It was about a Chinese diplomat in Germany in the late 30’s who saw what was going on.
    Since Honk Kong was controlled by competing interests, it was essentially an open city. Even the Japanese hadn’t taken over yet.
    He started issuing visas to anyone who asked for one and managed to get several hundred Jews out of Germany.
    It was a fascinating story about how the locals accepted the Jews and how they cooperated to survive the war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is fascinating. HK stands out in my mind as a place beyond borders, although that’s nothing like reality, in this era. I was there in the 80s, before the handover, and then, 15 years later. Although fashion and technology had changed in the intervening years, the city was much the same.
      Now, a different era.
      I’d welcome a link to the PBS program, if you have it, although I’ll look on my own.
      Thanks for the comment. Thanks for reading.


      • Hi Brad,
        I finally found that PBS show. It was Shanghai, not Hong Kong.
        It’s still a remarkable story.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Andy. I appreciate your following up. I have the link open, and I’ll watch with interest. I had about a day and a half in Shanghai on the same video production swing that included HK, so got only a tantalizing glimpse of the metropolis. So much to see.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice pictures of Hong Kong, it looks so densely populated. I hope things improve there soon with all the news of human rights issues in Hong Kong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Dense” is a way of life there, to a degree difficult to imagine. We all hope for HK, but things look bleak, I’m sorry to say.


  7. What an interesting piece! I had no idea that “junk” had such and interesting and varied past. (Probably learned about it from all that time you spend in the 400’s 😉 ) I recently came across Junk Decor which I found quite interesting as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Never doubt it. I’ve learned practically all I know in the 400s. With a lot more to read! (although, please remind what number “Reference” is: 900? Um, a lot of heavy lifting there, too)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually there’s no designated number for “reference!” I checked our stacks. Our reference books contain numbers from 00-900’s. Much of library reference is now done via computer so the reference section (which individual libraries have created )is just some logical books put together. Our library still has some Encyclopedias on the shelf but encyclopedias are being made obsolete by the internet. However the 00-100’s are designated for “information” which may contain reference books. The 030’s contain encyclopedias and “book of facts.”

        I have no doubt you visit the 900’s frequently. You like history and the 900’s are basically history books. As previously stated there are reference books in every category, but in general the 903’s include ” dictionaries, encyclopedias, concordances of history.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Man, I love talking to library people. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

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