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A Colonial Childhood, Hong Kong Deadline

A summer’s tale, full of sound and fury

The longer you live in Hong Kong, the more impressive becomes your Typhoon Tally, an essential component of your credentials, to be wheeled out as required. Only the big ones count. It’s Signal 10 (hurricane force winds with sustained speed of 64 knots or more) or nothing. I never knew anyone who couldn’t name them on demand, along with their year of occurrence and an alarming tale or two. For the record, mine goes Shirley, Rose, Elsie, Hope and Ellen.

Shirley in 1968 was only the third time the eye of a tropical cyclone had passed directly over Hong Kong but her winds and rains did relatively little damage and she’s not remembered as one of Hong Kong’s major typhoons.

Nevertheless, the No 10 signal was hoisted and I was there.

Thanks to the relatively mild Shirley and my youthful self-absorption, I looked forward to typhoon season every year, anxiously watching and waiting for the warning signal No 5 to go up – the winds had to be gale force to shut the schools.

As long as the power held out, there were unscheduled movies and late night cartoons, surely a sign of impending doom in combination with howling winds and battering rains.

There are still movies today which I equate directly with typhoon season because that’s when I first saw them. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, released in 1968, probably wasn’t a Shirley film, but I definitely was introduced to it during a typhoon.

Typhoon Rose in 1971 taught everyone, including me, a bit more respect.

typhoon signals pre 1973

The typhoon signals used by the Royal Hong Kong Observatory up until 1973.

The Baxters were out visiting the night she hit, my only experience of a typhoon from the higher end of a tower block.

I forget who was hosting us, but they lived on an upper floor of an exposed modern block of flats somewhere in the mid-levels.

When it was clear we wouldn’t be getting home, mattresses were put down on the living room floor and we tried to sleep as the building swayed alarmingly in the wind.

This of course was the right thing for the building to be doing, but it’s an unsettling sensation.

Then came the rains, pouring through the seals of the balcony doors. The mattresses were floating as everyone pitched in to bail the water into buckets and bowls and try and save the other rooms with rolled up towels and newspapers.

The next day, incredibly, the schools were most definitely open. I was outraged, as you can imagine. After all I had suffered, to have to go to school as well.

To make it worse, I got drenched getting there and the teacher had the nerve to suggest I should have stayed home.

But I got off lightly.

Thousands, most of them living in huts, were left homeless in Rose’s wake as their homes were washed away in the fury.

More than 100 people were killed at sea.

The Fat Shan ferry was sailing between Macau and Hong Kong with 92 passengers and crew on board when Rose hit.

The strong winds forced her to take refuge off Stonecutters Island but the anchor chain broke and the Fat Shan was dragged towards Lantau, where she sank just 120 metres from the shore.

The tragedy was only discovered when a passing boat found people floating in the water. Only four survived.

In 1975 Elsie surprised everyone by turning up in October. She was more wind than rain, managing a relatively modest 150.6 mm of moistening but she, too, caused damage. More than 40 people were injured by flying glass.

The South China Morning Post's weather map showing Typhoon Hope

The South China Morning Post’s weather map showing Typhoon Hope in 1979. In a matter of just a few hours the Hong Kong Observatory raised the signal from 8 to 9. Less than an hour later the highest signal, No 10, was hoisted.

Every typhoon has its own character. Hope in 1979 was fast and furious, moving quickly through Hong Kong in a lethal hurry.

She tore through the New Territories, causing widespread flooding and devastating three-quarters of Hong Kong’s agriculture.

She killed 12 and injured 260 people, the highest toll since Rose.

A ship rammed the Star Ferry pier at Kowloon and ran aground alongside the public pier, just the most visible of a number of vessels large and small to come to grief.

A report in the Straits Times from 3 August 1979, when the full extent of Hope’s fury wasn’t yet known, mentions three fishing boats carrying around 500 Vietnamese refugees.

Their whereabouts was unknown since they had been turned away by Macau into already freshening winds. I couldn’t find any further reference to them.

Ellen was my last big typhoon. She struck in 1983. It was the first time since Rose that I wasn’t in the relatively sheltered first floor flat where I grew up.

I was living on Lamma Island in a sturdy old two-storey block with nothing but fields between us and the sea.

As the winds increased during the night the cats became agitated. At one point they were literally climbing the walls.

Everything held, but water streamed horizontally through all the window seams and cascaded down the tiled stairs of our first-floor flat and out the front door, which seemed like a bit of architectural genius.

I’m sure it wasn’t the first time it happened, but Ellen was the first time I heard of the vacuum effect which sucked out air conditioners and, in one case at least, the contents of an entire room.

The unfortunate householder was on the phone to a local talkback show describing his typhoon experience when it happened before his eyes. That was great radio.

A mudslip claimed the homes of 375 people at Mt Davis. A fireman died while rescuing an old woman from her destroyed hut when a second mudslip washed him out to sea.

Typhoon Ellen was a scourge on shipping, with 26 ships run aground and hundreds of damaged smaller boats.

One ship, the Osprey, was torn from her anchor off Repulse Bay and swept out to sea where she snapped in half and sank. There was only one survivor and the rest of the crew were never found.

Ellen’s final toll was 22 dead or missing, 333 injured, 1,600 homeless, 44 ocean-going vessels in serious difficulties and 80,000 households left without power.

Since then, Hong Kong has experienced just two more No 10s – York in 1999 and Vicente in 2012.

Today, Rose and Hope would be classified as Super Typhoons, in the same company as Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

There was just one other since the Second World War to claim the title and that was Typhoon Wanda in 1962, still the record holder.

It’s been a while since Hong Kong had a visit from one of those really big ones.

According to the Hong Kong Observatory we now understand that cyclone activity goes in cycles, and at the moment we’re in a quiet one.

Improved building codes, a sophisticated warning system and the incredible advances in forecasting all combine to give Hong Kong the best possible chance.

But there’s no room for complacency. One day it will surely come.

Further reading:

In the eye of the storm: Typhoons in Hong Kong  – Excellent South China Morning Post feature *NEW*

The Hong Kong Observatory for detailed records of all Hong Kong’s No 10s

The long-awaited No. 10 – Hong Kong Observatory blog, including a warning against complacency!

The History of Wind Damage in Hong Kong by S. Campbell, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Storm in a teacup? – China Daily article from 2012 on the possibility of another Super Typhoon in Hong Kong

© Sally Baxter 2013
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “A summer’s tale, full of sound and fury

  1. Ah Sally, a scarred child of the 60s 80s. My natural disaster / movie combo was a 1976 Toowoomba hail storm / Jaws special. Two children go into movies with popcorn and drinks for Saturday session and come out to find it had “snowed” a few hours later – apparently in the middle of summer – but mother nature sent something more savage than gentle flakes and left roofs ripped off and windows smashed across about 1/4 of the city. The flower city on the mountain has more than its fair share of natural disasters and tragedy but maybe that’s just part of living in a sunburnt country, land of sweeping plains…..and so the ballad goes.

    Like

    Posted by Peggy | January 28, 2013, 9:24 pm
  2. Yep, this is not a tame country. Cheers Peggy!

    Like

    Posted by Sally Baxter | January 29, 2013, 6:10 am

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