In the stuff that lies around on my desk, I have a photo of the figurehead of the Empress of Japan taken in 1928 just after it was installed in Stanley Park. As the ship was being broken up near the Second Narrows bridge on the North Shore, Vancouver Province publisher Frank J. Burd had the teak figurehead salvaged which was then presented to the city.
In looking at photographs of the early Empresses I hadn’t realized that the Empress of Japan and her sister the Empress of China both sported dragons on their bows (duh) and while similar there were subtle differences. One is a Japanese dragon and the other, surprise, is Chinese.
What’s the difference? The basically the Japanese dragon has three toes vs four or five for the Chinese – a dragon with five toes was a symbol of the imperial family, and suitable for the Empress of China. All Asian dragons generally symbolize benevolent creatures full of wisdom and strength. The Empress of China’s dragon was carved in Kowloon, there’s no reference for where the other one was carved.
Empress of Japan and its sister ships were designed by John H. Biles the noted naval architect and were built by the British firm Naval Construction & Armaments Co. at Barrow-in-Furness. At 5,905-tons, a length of 455.6 feet, beam of 51.2 feet, a clipper bow, schooner-type masts and buff-coloured funnels she was a picture of elegance. Accommodation was provided for 770 passengers (120 first class, 50 second class and 600 steerage). The Empress of Japan and her two sister-ships, the Empresses of China and India, were the first vessels on the Pacific to have twin propellers with reciprocating engines which provided an average speed of 16 knots.
Under the command of Captain Henry Pybus, the Empress of Japan took the blue ribbon for a record crossing of the Pacific in 1897, a record the ship held for over two decades.
She was laid up in the second half of 1922 and remained at anchor in the harbour until she was demolished at North Vancouver in the Spring of 1926.
Both bowsprit close ups are from the Vancouver Archives