Chinese pirate in film echoes historic myth

By The Associated Press

HONG KONG – While Western pirates are a familiar feature of Hollywood movies, Disney is introducing a Chinese sea bandit in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

Capt. Sao Feng – played by Chow Yun-Fat – is a key figure in saving Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the world of the dead in the third installment of the megahit movie series, due out May 25.

Production photos show him with a bald head, long nails and a long, thin mustache. He’s wearing several layers of dark green armor and a jade ring on his pinky finger.

Sao Feng is fictional, of course.

But what were real Chinese pirates like?

They wore bright silk costumes and ate the hearts of their enemies to strike fear in their subjects, historians say. In some parts of China, they overwhelmed the navy and served as a de facto government, regulating trade and collecting taxes.

Much of the heritage of Chinese pirates traces back to Hong Kong. Lantau Island, where modern jetliners take off today at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport, was the site of a major battle between pirates and the imperial Chinese navy in 1809.

The city was such a pirate stronghold that navigational charts of that era referred to the Hong Kong group of islands as “Ladrones” – Portuguese for robbers.

The outlying island of Cheung Chau has an idyllic fishing village – and a famous legend, that of the great pirate Zhang Baozai.

While Zhang is believed to have operated in Hong Kong waters, no evidence suggests he was ever based in Cheung Chau. But that hasn’t stopped the legend from growing.

Tucked under a pile of large rocks along the southern coastline of Cheung Chau is a narrow passageway mythically believed to be one of Zhang’s lairs. It’s one of the island’s major tourist attractions.

Zhang’s legend is enhanced by his colorful personal life. As a youngster, he was adopted by the pirate Zheng Yi and his wife Zheng Yisao and became his stepfather’s boy lover. After Zheng Yi’s death, Zhang married his stepmother and had a child with her.

Zhang was said to have been tall and charismatic, according to research by the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. The museum’s director, Stephen Davies, said Zhang was known to wear flamboyant purple or red silk gowns.

Rank-and-file pirates dressed in duller colors faded by sunlight and washing and stained with tar, blood and waterproofing tung oil, according to Davies. A 19th century scroll depicting the 1809 battle off Lantau Island shows pirates wearing loose blue frocks and white pants with blue socks pulled up to knee level.

Zhang was religious, always worshipping the gods before taking action, and was keenly interested in Western weaponry.

Pirates from Zhang’s era fought with swords, pole guns and pike heads.

The average Chinese pirate ship was smaller and not as well-armed as its Western counterparts, historians say. They were mainly seized junks averaging about 40 feet long, with smaller junks deployed to navigate inland creeks.

The junks carried fewer cannons than in the West because less-sophisticated Chinese ship-building technology limited the vessels’ ability to handle ammunition recoil. But battleships from the imperial government – often converted rice transport ships – were even smaller and more poorly armed.

Zhang’s fleet crushed the Chinese navy, more than halving its fleet from 165 ships to 72 in two battles in 1808 and 1809.