Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Historical Context - Cheung Po Tsai


In Slow Boat Home, Raymond Wong’s character is nicknamed “Cheung Po Tsai”. Cheung Po Tsai (張保仔) was actually a famous pirate during the Qing Dynasty.

As a 15 year old, Cheung Po Tsai accompanied his fisherman father out to sea and was captured by a pirate named Cheng I (鄭一). Thus began his pirate career as a member of the Red Flag Fleet. Allegedly, Cheng I was a homosexual and fell in love with the handsome teen. His wife, known as “Cheng I So” (鄭一嫂), also became involved with Cheung Po Tsai.

When Cheng I died in a typhoon, Cheng I So remarried to Cheung Po Tsai and together, they secured power as the new leaders of the Red Flag Fleet. Their fleet, consisting of 30,000-40,000 men and 600 ships, dominated the South China Sea. As a pirate, Cheung Po Tsai had a code of honour: he robbed government and merchant ships, but never victimized fishermen. He also strictly prohibited his men from disturbing the citizens and stealing from the poor.

The Qing government waged many wars against the pirates. The most large-scale battle was at Chek Lap Kok (赤鱲角海戰), in which the Qing and Portuguese navies jointly fought against Cheung Po Tsai. Each side had 300 ships staffed by 30,000 men and heavy artillery. Cheung Po Tsai split his fleet into six squadrons. His plan was for each squadron to surround a single Portuguese ship, then board and overpower the enemy in a physical fight. But the Portuguese were able to fend off the approaching pirates with concentrated fire. The turning point came when the Portuguese bought down a pirate ship carrying a deity statute. Seeing the “protector” statute fall into the ocean destroyed the morale of the pirates and many of them decided to flee.

The strength of the Red Flag Fleet was severely diminished after that battle. Eventually, Cheung Po Tsai surrendered to the Qing government. In return, he was given the post of colonel and tasked with helping the government fight against other pirates, which he spent the rest of his life doing.

Cheung Po Tsai is rumoured to have hid his treasures in many locations. The most famous location is the “Cheung Po Tsai Cave” (張保仔洞) on Cheung Chau. However, the cave is extremely small and narrow, causing some people to be suspicious of the claim that he buried treasures there. As of yet, no treasures have been found. Some believe the cave only served as his hiding place to escape from the Qing or as a storage place for explosives. Nonetheless, the cave is a popular tourist attraction.

Read about the Cheung Chau Bun Festival!

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