Going down a storm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am

THE HOISTING OF typhoon signal No 8 usually heralds a frenzy of activity: mass exodus from work, traffic jams, a rush to fetch kids from school or to catch the last ferry, taping up of windows and the packing of bars offering the safety and comfort of a typhoon lock-in.

But while many are battening down the hatches, Clarence Fong Chi-kong is at home preparing to head out into the elements. The CNN webmaster puts on a raincoat, packs his hi-tech weather monitoring devices and calls his friends. Together they set off by car to the most exposed parts of the New Territories to find the most extreme conditions they can. They are the typhoon chasers.

'We chase the typhoon and measure the wind,' the 32-year-old explains. 'The most exciting time was being on Tai Mo Shan during a No 9 signal at night. The wind was 140km/h. The car was shaking. We dared not get out; it was too painful when the rain hit you.'

Typhoons are as good as it gets for Fong, although he can also get worked up about black rainstorms, a winter frost or a freak hail shower. He is Hong Kong's most renowned amateur meteorologist; a cyber celebrity among a small but fanatical band of weather watchers across the city.

In the past eight years, he has become a one-man institution, running a phenomenally popular website called Weather Underground (www.underground.org.hk). Almost 30 million visits have been recorded and the site had four million page views last month as Typhoon Imbudo headed our way. The Observatory's website - founded years after Fong's - may get six times as many hits but Fong says his 'targets those interested in weather, not the general public'.

It appears many are interested. Weather Underground has 500 members and dozens contribute to a daily news forum on the hot (or cold) topic of the day. Most are from Hong Kong but some hail from as far as the United States, Australia and Guam. Locally it has become a community.

'I have made many friends through the Weather Underground,' says Gary Tsang Chun-yan, an 18-year-old science student. He began using the site when he was 12, taking part in weather prediction competitions and discussion groups. 'It's a community. Two or three times a year we go for a barbecue and talk about the weather,' he says.

The humble headquarters of Fong's operation contrast sharply to spacious colonial elegance of the Observatory. He controls Weather Underground from a desk in his fourth-floor flat above a strip of neon-lit bars on Tung Choi Road, Prince Edward. When I visit as dusk falls, the brooding sky suddenly turns a thunderous black like a scene from a horror movie. Sudden gusts of wind sweep past, lightning streaks down and the clouds burst into rain.

'You've come at a good time,' says Fong, pointing to his digital Pro Vantage weather monitor. 'Wind is up to 42km/h. Rain is 12.4mm per hour. It's raining cats and dogs, ha ha.' A few minutes later the amber rainstorm warning flashes on screen and Fong bristles with excitement. 'You've chosen the right time, wah hoo.'

In the world of weather watching seeing an amber storm is like logging a new engine in train-spotting. Fong's flat is kitted out with thermometer, barometer and his Pro Vantage, bought for HK$24,000 in America. It is wired up in real time to the website, relaying information from a weather station on his roof.

The station is accessible only by an old iron wall ladder which leads to a tiny roof space. It's awkward to get to, but Fong scoured properties to find a flat with access to a suitably exposed rooftop. He has lived here since 1993, when he set up Weather Underground as a mailing list for like-minded people he met through internet newsgroups. 'As a kid I started observing typhoons by gathering information from video and newspapers,' says Fong. 'I wanted to share what I had with other people.' It snowballed from there.

In 1995, when the Underground had 20 members, Fong set up the website. He devoted his spare time to programming and updating the site manually. Now it almost runs itself and Fong needs only spend an hour a day on the site.

The computer science graduate worked for the Observatory for three years in the mid-1990s. It seems a perfect vocation, so why did he leave? 'There is conflict between job and interest. Sometimes you will see decision-making which is not truly scientific. If you want it to be scientific, make it your interest. Also, with a government job, you can't earn much even if you stay for 20 years.'

Digs at the Observatory pepper his remarks, although Fong says he has many friends there. His website has a section assessing the accuracy of official forecasts. 'The Observatory is not happy with this. Red figures mean they are doing very badly,' he says pointing to a bad weather day for the Observatory. 'See, they forecast 15 degrees and it was 11. I've highlighted it in red, ha ha.'

He also suggests typhoon 8 signals may be influenced by business interests, citing Typhoon Imbudo. 'The signal was lowered at 8.15am. But 10am would have been better ... 20 years ago they issued the warnings at any time. Now it is only at certain times of the day - early morning, noon or after work. Maybe it's commercial pressure.'

His independent stance is attracting growing numbers of visitors. Sometimes the server is so busy even Fong can't get on. 'I'm trying to solve it; I don't want to spend too much money because this is not a commercial site. It's just for interest.'

Fong has spent $10,000 on the site but hasn't explored ways of making it pay. 'I'm too lazy to do that,' he says. 'It's less responsibility and liability to run it yourself.' Nevertheless, Fong has big plans for the site. 'I want to pass it on to my kids if I can.' Considering he hasn't got any kids yet, it's a long-term commitment.