February is always the coldest month of the year in Hong Kong, although significant low temperatures throughout March have also been experienced this year. When the mercury plummets, Hongkongers seize the opportunity to wear scarves, woollens and snow jackets; the sight of so many heavily rugged-up people somehow makes the city streets seem colder than they actually are.
Recent prolonged periods of particularly cold weather have prompted further discussions about the local effects of global climate change. While few clear-sighted observers of the natural world seriously question that the planet’s weather patterns are increasingly strange, it is useful to remember that extreme cold snaps – and scorching heat waves – have occurred in Hong Kong’s recorded past.
One of Hong Kong’s earliest documented severe cold snaps occurred in the early spring of 1893. Details were recorded by an eyewitness, L. Gibbs, and published in the quarterly Hong Kong Naturalist, in 1931. In his account, Gibbs, who was living on Mount Kellett in1893, vividly described the effects of several days of extreme cold on Hong Kong Island’s upper altitudes.
“It was raining on the Peak on one of the worst mornings,” he related. “The rain froze as it fell and I remember that by the time I reached Magazine Gap, a heavy ulster [overcoat] I wore was frozen stiff in front of me.
“In the evening of one of the early days of the frost, our house-boy brought in with pride an icicle between six inches and a foot long. The hills were white with hoar-frost. To the Chinese in the city this was a novelty,” Gibbs noted. “They went up to the hills and gathered pine branches to take home as curios, probably with disappointing results.”
Anyone familiar with Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest mountain, will know that the single track road up rapidly becomes traffic-choked and impassable as soon as urbanites hear that “snow” – in reality heavy frost – can be seen up there. Gibbs’ account makes clear that in Hong Kong, where an occasional climatic novelty is concerned, nothing much ever changes.
Another significant cold snap occurred in 1948, causing ice sheets to form on Tai Mo Shan and on the nearby hillsides to the east of Kam Tin.
Geoffrey Herklots, the government botanist who was interned at Stanley during the Japanese occupation, noted that one wartime winter “was so cold that the fish in the sea were dying and from our camp we could see Chinese and Japanese in boats collecting the dying fish with the aid of dip nets”.
Writing in the book The Hong Kong Countryside, first published in 1951, some years after the events described, Herklots recorded how “fish of all kinds and sizes were washed up on the beach, not only small coral fish … and the red and green wrasse, but larger fish such as groupers; more than one large fish was obtained by an internee sneaking under the barbed wire when the guards were not looking!”
Several years after the war ended, Herklots was told by a Chinese friend “that only twice during the occupation were fish plentiful and cheap [in local markets]; once was after heavy dive bombing of ships in the harbour by the Americans. The other occasion was during the cold spell.”
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong