In August of 2012 Typhoon Kai Tak missed Hong Kong by a safe margin but still managed to cause a scare. It was a strong storm and at one point it was heading straight towards us. Visions of a day off leapt into, not only my head, but I am sure many others as well. It was not to be, and this is probably just as well, because even though it passed 200 km south of us the intensity of its winds were felt in all parts of the SAR.
I was anxious, as I am at the onset of any typhoon, and it was while I was on my way home that I wondered about this anxiety that borders on panic.
I have lived in Hong Kong all my life and during my childhood typhoons were much more frequent. No doubt changing weather patterns have something to do with this, but it wasn’t uncommon to have four or five typhoons a year, all of which hit.
My father drummed into us the need for safety. At the first sign of a typhoon he would come home and to the dismay of my mother, place masking tape on all the windows. In fact, we never had a broken window and whether this was due to my father’s precautions, or luck, I don’t know, but several of our neighbours suffered their windows being blown in. The result could be quite devastating; glass all over the floor, rain water being driven in by the wind, and the resulting damage was something experienced by many. But not us!
Prior to the 1960s, another danger came from the squatter huts that were spread out over the hills in those days. Public housing was still in its infancy, and the government was working as fast as they could to get the squatter villages emptied, and the people into proper accommodation. The danger came from the makeshift materials that had been used to build these shacks; corrugated iron and old timber that had been scavenged from building sites. When these shacks came apart, the corrugated iron became flying guillotines and more than a few injuries were caused to people who were struck by them. Sadly, before public housing took root it was not uncommon for the death toll after a bad typhoon to reach into the hundreds, if not thousands.
In my school days we lived in Pokfulam and the Star Ferry was still a well-used means of crossing the harbour. Indeed, the Cross Harbour Tunnel didn’t open until 1972. My father would drive me down to the Star Ferry and I would cross the harbour to go to school. I recall on one occasion there was a typhoon warning up, but it was not high enough to close the schools and businesses. We were driving through the side streets of Western District and the traffic was beginning to back up, even at that early hour. Suddenly an ironing board that had fallen off someone’s balcony or roof landed on the road in front of our car, missing us by only a few feet. Then, as we watched in shock, a gust of wind picked it up, and in an upright position it slammed into the car. Fortunately it didn’t hit the wind screen, but there was a resounding thump before another gust hefted it over the roof where it disappeared from sight.
There have been some amusing typhoons. In 1972 when I was stationed at the now defunct, Tsing Yi Power Station, the rule was that if you were at home when Number 3 went up you stayed there, and it you were at work, unfortunately, you stayed there as well. Today, Tsing Yi is a transport hub; in 1972 the only way to reach the power station was by water taxi, or Walla Wallas, as we used to call them. This particular typhoon, regrettably I don’t recall the name, actually did a figure of eight in the South China Sea and the Number 3 signal stayed up for 3 days. The reason I was so happy was because I was at home when it went up.
In the mid eighties, what was then still the Royal Hong Kong Observatory got into trouble when it put the signal up too soon. Offices and industry closed down only to find out that the typhoon was a fizzle. The Labour Department estimated that millions of dollars had been lost in revenue. What no one thought to point out was that nobody was injured in the rush to get home because everyone had plenty of time. Now we seem to have the opposite situation. As soon as the typhoon reaches a safe distance from the SAR the Observatory lowers the signal, totally ignorant of the rain bands that cause as much havoc as the typhoon itself for hours, or even days, after the beast has gone away.
I have never been in real danger from a typhoon and therefore don’t understand the anxiety that I feel whenever one is reported. However, there was one occasion in 1976 when I was spending a long weekend on a friend’s 43 foot sailboat when things got quite exciting.
At the time I worked for a company called Cape Yachts. They built 33 and 43 foot sailboats designed by Ted Brewer, and I was fortunate enough to be invited out by one of our buyers.
I was new to sailing, but the skipper was ex-Royal Navy, and the other two crew members were experienced, having sailed in Hong Kong waters for several years. On the last night we were moored off Cheung Chau, sitting in the cockpit at dusk, having enjoyed a curry dinner, when one of the crew pointed up at the clouds. They were stringy and scattered and this, the fellow told us, was an indication of strong winds in the region. What he didn’t say was that there was probably a typhoon nearby. The skipper didn’t show any concern, nor did the others, so I didn’t think anymore about it. But I remember thinking at the time that we hadn’t listened to a weather report since setting sail, two days ago.
The following morning revealed a different situation. The weather was obviously bad; no rain, but strong winds reaching Gale Force 9. The sea was high and white. Now we turned on the radio and discovered that the Number 8 signal had been hoisted – shut down everything and get to safety – NOW!
We set the storm jib and rolled the main down to its minimum. (This yacht had roller reefing, a thing that only older sailors will recall, and most current sailors will have never experienced). We set sail for the Aberdeen Typhoon Anchorage. It was an exhilarating journey and I was too awestruck by the elements to be afraid. All too soon it was over and we were safely moored in Aberdeen. But I have never forgotten the indifference of the skipper and crew, all of whom had far more experience than I. At the first sign of potentially bad weather, the scattered clouds, we should have checked the weather station, and if we had, we would have found out that Number 3 had been hoisted and that the typhoon was on its way towards us.
Of course, typhoons are not a new phenomenon in Hong Kong. In the 1800s there was no weather observatory and predictions were largely hit or miss. I recall my father telling me that a local farmer had once told him to watch where the birds built their nests. If they built their nests in the middle of a tree where they were sheltered by the branches then they were expecting bad weather. But, if they built them at the top of the tree where they could enjoy the cool breezes, then it was a sign of fair weather.
A devastating typhoon hit Hong Kong in 1874. The following text is taken from Wikipedia:
Some adventurers went out to the Praya at 11:00 PM and found themselves knee-deep in the water and risked being washed away by the waves hitting the shore. They were forced to retreat by 01:00 AM as the winds were reaching a new high. The East Point on Causeway Bay recorded a water level 4 feet above its average. Many stores and shops, even far away from the Praya waterfront were flooded and water damaged.
The storm’s two-hour impact had injured and killed many in the Colony. Telegraphic communication was interrupted and communication with Hong Kong island was cut for a time. The town had sustained a great loss, its roads were deserted and strewn with debris, house roofs were ruined, windows shattered and walls fallen and cables and gas pipes were blown away and trees uprooted.
In the aftermath: Most of the 37 ships in port were damaged and hundreds of fishing junks and sampans were either wrecked or broken up despite having sought shelter in the bay. At this time Hong Kong did not have its own weather observatory and many people were expecting the storm from a different direction, while others were caught off guard and either shipwrecked or lost their homes. A few false typhoon alerts had been announced earlier in the year.
The next morning, the Praya scene from west to east was heart-rending: one could easily find boats capsized and corpses floating and drifting on the water with some bodies washed ashore by the high tides.“
So I don’t mess around with typhoons. At the first sign, that one is in the area I check the Hong Kong Observatory. If there is the slightest indication that the thing is going to come close I pack up and go home, regardless of whether the closing down signal has gone up or not. Where typhoons are concerned I will always follow my father’s advice. Better to be safe than sorry.