|Timber for the Dragon Treasure Boat|
Mr TJ Jia, the deputy manager of the shipyard said, "Procuring timber from Malaysia is a real challenge. In building this wooden boat to the dimensions specified, we have to be very meticulous in selecting the right hardwood species, maturity, appropriate curvatures and lengths."
That would seem to be pretty common criteria until one sees the pictures of this world's largest wooden boat. In keeping to the original design of this historic boat, each of the "ribs" of the hull must be hewed from one solid piece and minimal splicing or joining allowed. And each rib stands 6 to 7 meters tall from tip to tip with a curved angle of approximately 25 degrees. That is a big trunk! Mr Jia adds "The ribs are the fundamental components of the boat skeleton; like the human ribcage, they have to be strong enough to provide support to the "skin" of the boat, strong enough to withstand the pounding waves and strong enough to support the planks that form the deck of the boat. Finding logs of this size with the natural curvature means we have to go through a lot of logs (or trees) until we find the right gems."
Indeed, this challenge has been echoed by the timber companies in Malaysia. Under normal conditions, trees tend to grow upright and tall. So to find such naturally curved logs, men have to scour deep into the forests and under remote mountain cliffs where the trees competing for sunlight and space, have by necessity varying trunk shapes. Then these felled trees have to be dragged to the nearest dirt road before they can be transported to the docks. Whenever it rains, work stops as the terrain becomes almost impassable. And despite it all, the Nanjing craftsmen typically reject 15-20% of the received timber as it does not meet their standards. To date, the consistent availability of good timber has been the pace-setter in the boat building progress.
Once the ribs are completed, the timber for the cladding and the decks will not be as challenging to set in place as the planks required are mostly flat. Still, the rigorous selection criteria, the careful attention to detail and the demands of "getting it right the first time" may yet spring surprises. In building this seaworthy boat, nothing can be left to chance. When the boat is completed, there is simply no easy way to strip defective structural portions for redo. It has to pass sailing tests the very first time.
Dato Michael Loh, the Chairman and CEO of the group that owns this project has this to say "I am proud that, despite the difficulties, the craftsmen have achieved yet another milestone. I applaud their dedication and uncompromising attitude towards quality. They will be the first in the modern world to construct a wooden boat of these dimensions and the boat will be the first in the modern world to sail in the Great Admiral's footsteps. What a spectacle it will be."
The Admiral's Nests
It is said that Admiral Zheng He in one of his travels encountered a severe storm at sea and had to seek refuge on an island in Malaysia. Running low on food, he and his crew foraged and chanced upon bird nests that looked different from the usual straw, twigs and leaves. Almost translucent, with few discarded feathers and shaped like a half shell; these nests were cooked and eaten by the hungry Admiral and his men. Several days later, the Admiral observed that the men seemed to have increased vigour. In keeping with his practice of bringing back interesting artifacts, produce and flora/fauna to China, Zheng He brought some bird's nests to the Emperor. Since then, the Chinese have viewed the swift birds' nests as a delicacy, as a nutritional supplement for many ailments and perhaps even as an aphrodisiac.
These nests, which hitherto have been consumed only by the rich overseas Chinese (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, USA), are now readily affordable by the increasing affluent Chinese in China. The worldwide market today (processed and raw) is estimated to be close to a US$ 1billion. Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are the top three producers and other ASEAN countries and even India are hopping onto this wagon. In Malaysia alone, it is estimated there are 50,000 premises or "swiftlet homes", many of which are purposely built multi-storey buildings or converted residential houses. As swiftlets cannot be domesticated or farmed, they choose where they want to roost so owners create ambience, pipe in bird music and utilize all sorts of paraphernalia to entice the birds. Thailand probably has more of such birdhouses so the next time you pass by one of these houses, please keep your voices down and respect that the birds are hard at work. With each kilo fetching around US$1,000, this business is lucrative enough to keep generations of Chinese around the world feted on its nourishing properties.
Little did the Admiral know that his chance discovery of an edible nest would result in a population explosion of swiftlets. It must take millions and millions of birds to produce the estimated 500 tons of nests annually. What a load of saliva!
And the biggest bird's nest in the world is in Beijing, the National Stadium, finished just in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.