Hong Kong Observatory's resilience shines through, come hell or high water

Observatory is a beacon of resilience even in wartime, in no small part because of its leaders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 5:59am

If there is a Hong Kong Observatory spirit, resilience is certainly what defines the 130-year-old institution best.

Its long history meant it survived the second world war - thanks to a man named Graham Heywood, who as director of the Observatory rebuilt it from scratch after the Japanese invaders left, current chief Shun Chi-ming said. Because of that, Shun said he considered Heywood the most respected director of the 14 who preceded him.

Heywood was one of three known top weather officials sent to prison camps by the Japanese, Shun recalled.

He was ordered to dismantle the Observatory's facilities in the New Territories along with a colleague, Leonard Starbuck. Both eventually spent about four years in the Sham Shui Po prison camp.

Upon his release in 1946, Heywood became director of the Observatory until 1956.

"It was a daunting task given that the Japanese had taken away most of the equipment and records. Everything had to be started from scratch again," Shun said, adding that the headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui had, however, remained intact.

Heywood's immediate predecessor, Benjamin Evans, was also regarded as a legend. Observatory director in the thick of the war, Evans persevered in taking measurements even while incarcerated in the Stanley prison camp. He would note down rainfall and temperature readings on the back of cigarette packs.

In another fond episode, Evans delivered a rooftop lecture on stargazing for fellow prisoners when they were locked up in a Sheung Wan brothel. It was a pity that, after the war, Evans returned to Britain, Shun said. Another colourful director is Gordon Bell, who set a time lap record in Macau's first Grand Prix race, held in 1954. He was also the first Hong Kong weather forecaster to fly into a violent storm to gauge information, venturing into tropical cyclone Dot on an Auxiliary Air Force twin-engine plane in 1973.

The Observatory, founded in 1883, was set up as a result of a proposal by Britain's Royal Society to add a new weather observation point in the Far East between Shanghai and Manila.

Hong Kong was chosen - partly because it was seen to be ideal for the study of general meteorology and typhoons.

The idea received enthusiastic backing from governor John Pope Hennessy. After much correspondence back and forth with London, arguing about the project's cost and name - with one idea being Kangxi, an emperor of the Qing dynasty - construction began on a two-storey building on Mount Elgin in Tsim Sha Tsui. The building and its surroundings are now monuments.

And the typhoon warnings back then? In its first year, the Observatory sounded the alarm, when it detected gale-force winds, by firing a gun into the air.