Hong Kong Diary: Typhoon!

Hong Kong Diary by Simon Winchester

Published June 26, 1997 7:44PM (EDT)

the weather is suddenly causing the greatest concern. It has been raining so
much and so heavily here in the past few days that Old China Hands are
beginning to think the unthinkable: What if, they say, there was a typhoon on
the handover day?

A Hong Kong typhoon is a terrible thing to behold. It is also a phenomenon
with which the territory, on the basis of decades of bitter experience, is now
more than amply organized to meet. And yet that very organization could spell
the death of any celebration due to be held next Monday, should the weather
turn really ugly.

There is a steady gradation in both the levels of climatic ugliness and
the measures Hong Kong has designed as a response. It begins when a
typhoon -- the word comes from the Cantonese for big wind -- is spotted on
radar, hundreds of miles out in the Pacific and coming in the general
direction of the colony. Once it comes within 500 miles
of the coast, the Royal Observatory announces to the public the so-called
Raising of Signal No. 1. People are told to watch and listen, that a
storm is in the offing and may possibly cause the territory some trouble.

If the cyclone does indeed worsen, if it strengthens and moves closer still, to
within 100 miles, then Signal No. 3 goes up. (The numbers are
randomly chosen, but known by all.) With this news, everyone starts listening to the radio, all the time. Charts go up in the lobbies of the skyscrapers and men with pens are charged with plotting the movement of the weather patterns, hour by hour. People are told to bring their geranium pots in from
their windows and their children in from the playgrounds, and small
boats make for the concrete-walled storm shelters that huddle in the
smaller bays around the coast. Everyone becomes tense, nervous; eyes peer up
at the skies, at the threatening bands of black cloud, at the gusts of wind.

Then, if the typhoon appears to be strengthening still and roaring in to
within 10 miles of Hong Kong, the observatory takes the fateful step of
raising Signal No. 8. Hong Kong now officially closes down.
All government offices shut. People are told to go home or stay indoors. The
Star Ferry runs its jaunty little boats for only half an hour more, shuttling
the last few brave passengers across a harbor that is fast becoming roiled by
huge, green, greasy waves. All buses stop. Cars pull off to the sides, to lie
abandoned. Those people who are caught in the driving rain and howling winds
all pour down, if they can, into the subway stations. The territory empties of
people within minutes. Aside from the mad crashing and rushing of the trees,
the place just seems to die.

Once in a while -- twice, when I lived here -- the Royal Observatory puts up
Signal No. 10. This tells a frightened citizenry that they may soon expect
a Direct Hit, that the eye of the coming storm will pass directly over
Victoria Peak, and that an explosive torrent of rain and wind will lash
without surcease at the territory, for hour upon hour of misery and ruin.
People get killed during direct hits. Huge ships are torn from their moorings
and cast up on the rocks. All aircraft are diverted to cities hundreds of
miles away. Hong Kong's life is utterly disrupted. The meteorologists run out of words to describe the condition of the sea, raging in its hurricane. They say simply that the sea state is phenomenal.

And this is what the organizers are now worrying about, for Monday. This is the beginning of the Pacific storm season, and the weather has of late been unusually bad here -- hot, sticky, oppressive and given to massive and noisy little storms. The perfect breeding ground, in short, for the typhoons for which this region is notorious.

Four thousand dignitaries, scores of heads of state, $20 million worth of fireworks -- and every moment of the ceremonies planned for outdoors. The thought that all of this might well be rained out, and that a huge storm -- a perfect storm -- will rage while so many of the world's leaders are in town is causing nightmares.

Sixty percent chance of heavy rain, say the forecasters. And the chance of a typhoon? Not saying, reply the experts. But it is possible. Hedge your bets. Keep thinking of a Plan B. And keep your powder dry.

By Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is a contributing editor for Salon Wanderlust. He has previously written about Hong Kong, the Kurile Islands and China.

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