The word sampan comes from two Chinese words san and pan, meaning “three boards.” This refers to the hull construction in a small skiff or boat. The sampan is smaller than the type of boat called a junk, with which it is often compared and sometimes confused. Different styles of sampan have developed to fit different purposes, meaning that a sampan is not one, specific type of boat, but a group of boats that may have modifications to fit their locale or use. The most well-known sampan, however, is one that is rather long and flat with ends that slightly curve up from the water and a some kind of roof that can provide shelter to the passengers. The sampan originated in China, but more recently, use of this type of boat has spread to other countries in East Asia and beyond.
Sampans have a particular type of hull construction that is referred to by several experts as “Chinese hull design.” The hull design generally includes three vertical partitions that create separate compartments on a vessel. The bulkheads are watertight, and the first and last may be allowed to fill with water to act as temporary ballast, steadying the boat in heavy seas. Sampans also feature a characteristic flat bottom without a keel. The traditional model is propelled by an oar or a sail and steered with a rudder.
While both the junk and the sampan are thought to have developed from rafts and share the distinctive Chinese hull construction and flat-bottomed design, they have some important differences. A junk may have five masts, whereas a sampan — if it has any — generally has only one. A junk is typically five times as long as a traditional sampan, and junks are considered ships, while the smaller sampans are classified as boats. Reportedly, the two vessels used to be distinguished based on whether a water buffalo could comfortably stand facing the port or bow side. If so, the vessel was a junk. If the animal could only fit by facing the stern or bow, the vessel was identified as the smaller sampan.
A number of adaptations are used to make sampans more suitable for a variety of uses. Although traditional sampans are made of wood and powered with oars and sails, recent models may be made of fiberglass and feature an inboard or outboard motor. In many cases, whether the boat is used for living, fishing, or ferrying passengers, a section of the boat is covered to create a shelter. For use as a houseboat, a galley and sleeping area is created, and there may be a shrine as well. Larger, luxury sampans are also used as transportation for sightseeing tours.
Sampans are still found in southern China, where fishing communities use them as houseboats. In 1899, the first sampan was brought to Hawaii, but it arrived via Japan, picking up some Japanese design elements on the way. Sampans are also found in Malaysia, Singapore, Macau, and on the Mekong River in Vietnam, for example. With the spread of the sampan, a variety of names have evolved, including Chinese shoe-boat, kolek, and tambang.