Captain Ken #9 - The China Boats

Captain Ken Owen had a long career at sea which included sailing as master with Overseas Containers Limited (OCL), P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd. Ken is now retired and in 2020 he started writing a monthly article for publication using the pen name 'Captain Ken' in the Mellor Church Outlook magazine.

A number of articles that Ken has written are about his time at sea and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.

This is the ninth article that we have reproduced on the PONLHeritage site and this one covers his visits to ports in the People's Republic of China where the crew were presented with copies of Mao Tse-tung's Little Red Book. The article finishes with some recollections provided by a friend of Ken's who used to visit him on board our container ships in Hong Kong in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

CAPTAIN KEN


I served most of my sea-going life on the Blue Funnel Line whose ships were referred to in Liverpool as the China Boats because at that time, that was where they sailed to and from for trading purposes. When the Communist Red Army took over the Nationalist Party in China in 1949, we were temporarily excluded from Shanghai, but Mao Tse-tung was anxious to re-establish trade, and in the early 1960s allowed our ships to continue to dock in China on strict terms. At that time I was a Midshipman on the Liberty ship Glen Beg, which was the first British ship allowed back in to Shanghai. It was an incredible experience as Shanghai, a city which had been one of the world’s most lively ports, was now in total blackout and seemed empty of people. It was the time of the Korean War and the Blue Funnel Line ships were therefore put in the very odd trading situation of carrying ammunition to our army which was fighting Chinese soldiers in Korea, and then proceeding to what amounted to an enemy port in China, to load their exports onto our ship to carry them home. As this was the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, you will appreciate that visiting China in a British ship was, to say the least, very worrisome and by the time I was promoted to Chief Officer, I got to know the full seriousness of the situation when a colleague of mine on a sister ship was arrested on suspicion of spying and imprisoned for two and a half years - mostly in solitary confinement.

Whenever we docked at a Chinese port, we were all issued with copies of Mao Tse-tung's Little Red Book (LRB) and were expected to read it. Revolutionary Red Guards were posted all over the ship to check our reactions and behaviour. One ship on which I served arrived in a Chinese port and as formal proceedings were being conducted, copies of the LRB were handed out to newcomers. The Red Guard asked the captain to produce the copy he had been given on a previous voyage. I happen to know that he had thrown it into the sea as soon as we had left China and I was apprehensive and concerned about his reply. However, I was relieved and impressed with his quick thinking when he told the Chinese official that he had given his previous LRB to the pilot in Liverpool who particularly wanted a copy, knowing the captain could get another LRB when he returned to China. They seemed to be very pleased with this answer and were only too eager to oblige. However, I felt the captain was pushing his luck a bit when, handed a fresh copy, he asked them if he could possibly have a copy in German for the pilot in Hamburg? They were even more impressed with this request.


We invariably had a Liverpudlian crew so you can imagine how difficult it was for Scousers to take all this LRB stuff seriously even to ensure that we would be allowed to return home. On one occasion the Chinese Commissar asked me to assemble the crew on deck with their personal copies of the LRB so that he could address them. He opened his copy of the LRB and began reading from it. He read out, 'Mao says sunflowers face the sun,' to which a Liverpool accent called out, 'and wallflowers face the wall.’ There was a slight incomprehensible silence before, to my relief, the Commissar continued to thankfully no more Scouser interjections. I think they had all drifted off.


On the Shanghai waterfront at that time stood a once very exclusive club, which contained the world’s longest bar. However, the People’s Republic had very 'democratically' transformed it to the Working Seamen’s Club. On one occasion we were all invited there, and the place was filled with current Cultural Revolutionary slogans and In large letters behind this famous bar, was written ‘The chief enemy of the proletariat is the domestic reactionary.’ After studying the slogan for some time, I heard a puzzled young member of the crew ask an older member ‘What’s a domestic reactionary?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ came the reply, ’ but I think it’s a butler who won’t answer the door.’ A bit of political dialectic in a nutshell. How we got through all this and managed to return home, I’ll never know!

Visits from Captain Ken - Ann Preston


I would like to add a personal perspective to Captain Ken’s excellent articles.


When we were living on Hong Kong Island from 1987 onwards, we were delighted to receive many visitors from the U.K. and various parts of the planet. One such visitor was Captain Ken in his ‘largest container ship in the world’ and others. As a family we were invited to visit Captain Ken on his ships whilst in the harbour in port at Kwai Chung on the mainland and one day we had a tour of the Liverpool Bay or the Peninsular Bay. Wow: Was it smart? And the Captain’s cabin and lounge on the decks; what memories for us all. Ken introduced us to important Hong Kong dignitaries and various members of his crew. What a privilege.


When the ship was due to leave Hong Kong he used to tell us what time he would be rounding the bottom of Hong Kong Island passing Deep Water Bay very close to where we lived. He used to say ‘listen out for the ship's hooter as we go past your apartment at (a certain time)’ so we did. We used to have friends standing by to hear the tooting in the distance, and a quick glimpse of the ship as it rounded the base of the Island. Then we knew Ken was on his way back to Allwyn and his family in Rowarth.


We used to fly back and forth from Kai Tak to home fairly regularly and on one occasion we met Maggie Williams who was flying to Hong Kong to help a friend of hers in her business. Great coincidence! At one point during the flight we noticed Maggie chatting with the stewards and she then disappeared for half an hour or so. We hadn’t a clue where she was. Eventually she returned and asked us if we were enjoying the flight - was it smooth enough or bit bumpy maybe? We thought it was fine. She then said ‘Oh, it's just that I have been flying the plane for short while.’ No wonder she loves watching birds. Is there no end to her talents? Those were the days !!


We left Hong Kong in 1991 and went to Brussels until 1993 when we returned to the UK and Mellor Church.


(This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).

Peninsular Bay (in the later P&O Nedlloyd livery)