No Problem, Mr. Walt
A Memoir of Loss, Building a Boat, Rebuilding a Life, & Discovering China
Scan the Hong Kong harbor. Crammed stem to stern on its sparkling waters are hundreds of ships and boats—big and small, old and new, with listing masts and soaring funnels. There are yachts and there are container ships. There are pleasure craft and tugboats. But here and there you still see a few Chinese junks still plying the harbor. China has eighteen thousand miles of coastline, not to mention thousands of miles of canals and rivers where junks can occasionally be seen. In the U.S. though, there are only a few, all imitations of the original….except one.
The fifty-four foot-long Mei Wen Ti, is presently berthed in Los Angeles Harbor in Southern California. Built completely by hand in the early nineteen-nineties in a boatyard not far from Shanghai, the Mei Wen Ti is the only authentic wooden junk of its kind and size in America. How it got there is part of what this story is about.
Looking back, I now realize that I had daydreamed about living on a boat for a long time, but didn’t think it would ever happen. At the end of the 1980s, I had a wonderful family, a mortgage, MBA and businesses to run. I was president of the Old Pasadena Business and Professional Association, and I volunteered with the Flying Samaritans. I was a busy man and the dream seemed impractical and remote. Then in 1989, my son was murdered.
After that day, my life seemed to take its own path.
Blurred by grief and sorrow, I was sure life as I had known it was over. I lost interest in the business and stopped flying to Mexico with the flying Samaritans. My son’s death and my divorce a short time later left me with a big decision to make. Here I was at fifty-five years of age, thoroughly set adrift. So why not, finally, pursue my dream? Why not live on a boat? But not just any boat. After looking for boats around Southern California, I met a modern-day China trader and the adventure began. This book tells the story of that adventure. While the narrative is woven around my experiences during the construction of the Mei Wen Ti, it is also a journey of discovery. And it is more: a travel book, a memoir, a little history, and a first-person account of life in an ancient land. The story alternates between California and China while the junk was constructed. It’s about China today and about ancient China. It’s about understanding the difference between fighting and singing crickets, enjoying breakfasts of congee and green tea, discovering the Eight Immortals, walking the streets of Shanghai at daybreak, riding in a Red Flag limousine, learning the proper way to eat dim sum (the chicken feet dish must precede the sweet bean wontons), and how ordinary Chinese citizens work and play. But mainly this story is about the people and experiences that I encountered during the construction of the junk, and the new path my life took in the process.
Mei Wen Ti means “no problem” in Chinese. I chose this playful yet sarcastic name because no matter what I ask during the beginning of this tumultuous two-year process of building the junk, that’s what the Chinese answered. This beautiful and unique vessel’s birth, however, was anything but unproblematic, as you will see.
A Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.