Locations: Chinese Shanties
$Revision: 1.1 $

Most of the contents, and all the images, come from G.R.G. Worcester,
Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze.
Naval Institute Press, 1972

Kompo Shanty

The Kiangpei ("Kompo floating dwellings") are built up on a junk or sampan which has outlived his "sailing life". So the actual size of the abode depends on the size of the original ship, and these may vary a lot. The one in the first image is around 12.5 meters, with a depth of a little more than 1 meter.

These "dwellings" are usually extremely overcorwded, at least according to western standards. Even a small sampan may serve as home for eight or more members of the family, including grandparents, father and mother, possibly an uncle and aunt and two or three children (usually each of them is secured with a bamboo life-belt, which in turn is attached to some part of the boat with a rope), and almost invariably a baby.
On top of these (literally "on top", in a sense) you must account for pigs, dogs, and hens.

These boats are not necessarily inhabited by junk folk, but very often by ordinary working-class families who cannot afford to pay the rent for a traditional house.
Factory workers, coolies, and other low-wage workers live there along with their families, who have probably been out all day on the equally tiring duty of peddling small articles in the streets or rummaging in the rubbish heaps for inconsiderable but welcome trifles. Much of the fuel for cooking is obtained in this way. The cramped living quarters may be dark and dreary, but the galley, or kitchen, the most important part of the boat, is kept bright, so that the kitchen god may see the good points of the family.

The kitchen god, to whom an altar is dedicated above the stove, ascends to heaven annually on the 24th day of the 12th moon to report on the behaviour of the family. On this day he receives offerings of rice and sweets to make his lips sticky and his mouth sweet so that he may be prevented from repeating any of the bad deeds of the family.


Tea House


Ichang stands on a conglomerate rise which is only just above the average high level of the river. In winter the long, low sandspit disclosed below by the receding waters occupies nearly one-third of the river's breadth in summer.

Colonies of matshed huts spring up on this extensive sandbank when it appears; and rows of houseboats of all sizes and shapes tie up to the mudbanks during the winter months, forming a migratory suburb of floating villas. In common with those of the Upper Yangtze, which they closely resemble, these consist of any condemned junk or sampan built up with every sort, size, and description of wood in every sort of condition. As only the comparatively rich can afford bits of packing cases, timber no longer serviceable for junks is generally used. The wood is sometimes bought, though much is often acquired. A neighbour's house may have caught fire and may yield a plank or two. Floating wood from accidents to craft forms a welcome windfall, for it is the unwritten law of the Yangtze that floating wood is never returned to the owner if it can be avoided.

A favourite type of houseboat is a sampan with a patchwork dwelling superimposed upon it, and in countless of these craft live many thousands of Ichang residents who know no other home. Ducks, chickens, cats, dogs, and pigs often live on board on terms of equality with the owners.

Actually this floating population is rather to be envied than pitied. Instead of being condemned to the narrow restrictions of drab streets and mean houses, they enjoy a roving life in the open air with constant variations of scene. The question of water supply need present no problem, neither need floods nor civil disasters concern them, for they may profit from the former by collecting flotsam and can always remove themselves and their property bodily from the vicinity of the latter.


Among the clusters of these humble homes, larger craft may be seen towering above the others. These are the tea-house boats--the aristocrats of the floating suburbia of Middle Yangtze River ports. On the arrival of a river steamer these unwieldy craft make their way out from the shore under crude oars, aided by poling, when shoal water permits, or even tracking up the bank far ahead of all shipping in port. Then, leaving the shelter of the riverbank, they sheer out into the swift current and progress with it crab-wise down stream until, by a miracle of fine judgment and to the accompaniment of a pandemonium of shouting and noise, they manageto secure a hold to the steamer's stern. The tea-house bow being then almost alongside the ship's fender, an easy access is assured to thirsty passengers when the whole doorway across the bows is thrown open.

The floating tea-house selected for description here is known as the Tea House of the Welcome Dragon (*). It is built up on a condemned Upper Yangtze junk of the pao-wan-ch'uan type, which, for whatever reason, is much in favour for the purpose. This specimen had, no doubt, served for many years among the rapids and races of the gorges, but, despite this, was in very fair condition.

It measures 52 feet, with a beam of 15 feet, and, as regards the hull, presents no variation from the pao-wan-ch'uan in construction. The superstructure, which projects laterally for 6 inches on either side over the junk deck, is supported by crossbeams. About one-third of the after-portion is completely built up to form a space for two quite roomy and comfortable cabins for the owner and his large family.


The remaining part of the craft has breast-high bulwarks of irregular planking along both sides terminating in a large entrance door right across the bow. The whole junk is covered by a mat roof. In this semi-open cafe' are distributed seven small tables, while close to the entrance on the starboard side is a counter where the owner's wife sells cigarettes, sweets, peanuts, and sunflower seed.

Behind the tea tables are a serving table a stove, and a water kang. Before each customer is placed a covered bowl without handles, a few tea leaves being sprinkled in the bottom. A servant then moves, swiftly and inquisitively, from table to table, filling these bowls from a tin kettle of boiling water with a spout over 2 feet long. From an elevation of about a foot and at a distance of nearly a yard, he fills each bowl to the brim with the greatest dexterity and without a drop going astray, and passes on to the next table, moving nonchalantly among the crowded clients, who have such faith in his skill that no one flinches when the formidable kettle is balanced within a few inches of his shoulder.

The tea-bowls are filled and refilled. A very modest sum entitles a man to stay all day if he should so desire. Deck-chairs are often provided as an extra lure, and it sometimes happens that a floating-kitchen junk will tie up alongside and serve ready cooked meals to hand up to the tea-drinking clients in the teahouse. In the winter the sides of the boat are closed in with bamboo matting to keep out the cold wind and the rain.

An additional source of income is provided by allowing passengers from the overcrowded decks of the adjacent river steamer to lay out their rolls of bedding on the floor of the floating tea-house and spend the night there after the tea-drinking clients have gone.

However old and however rickety the craft may be, the visitor may always count on his money's worth in welcome, warm weak tea, and the amusement to be gained by watching unaffected human nature in the raw taking its ease.