FLOODS, fire and pestilence have been Hong Kong's lot since the barren rock was first ceded to Britain in 1841. By the turn of the century, despite 60 years of development, little had changed. As the South China Morning Post hit the streets for the first time in November, 1903, bubonic plague continued to take its toll on the population. Most of the victims were Chinese living in overcrowded accommodation with poor sanitation. Many lived in ramshackle dwellings, set apart from the relative luxury of the European areas. The Governor, Sir Henry Blake, was forced to take steps other than the offer of a bounty of two cents for a rat's tail. But despite the programme of sanitation and public works he began before he left Hong Kong two weeks after the launch of the Post, the plague continued to kill hundreds every year. On September 18, 1906, another killer unleashed its wrath on Hong Kong - the great typhoon which in a single day killed an estimated 10,000 people. Among them was Anglican Bishop Dr C. J. Hoare, who was aboard a mission vessel with his trainees and who drowned trying to rescue a trainee who fell overboard. ''Shrieking laughter at observatory notices,'' the South China Morning Post reported, ''the typhoon swooped upon us without so much as by-your-leave . . .'' ''It was wonderful, terrible, pathetic yet grand - this spectacle of elemental nature amok, indifferent alike to life and property.'' It was also massively destructive. Civilian and naval craft were smashed to pieces, piers washed away, the roof of a theatre torn off and the mat-shed shelters housing Chinese families were blown away. On February 27, 1918, 600 more died when a mat-shed stand collapsed and caught fire at the Happy Valley racecourse. The Post carried the heroic story of 20-year-old Sonny Fatydad and six other Indian boys who were nursing their own injuries at the edge of the fire ''when two women began shrieking frantically for help. Ignoring his father's entreaties, the Post reported, ''Sonny waved his hand and shouting to his comrades, 'Come on boys', in they went among the smoke and flames. A momentary glimpse was seen of them, grasping the unfortunate women by the arms and pulling with all their strength. Then they were blotted out from view by a portion of material which crashed down upon them.'' In the same period an epidemic of cerebro-spinal meningitis claimed about 1,000 Chinese refugees living in fetid tenements on the north shore of Hong Kong island. World War II plunged Hong Kong into one of its darkest nightmares. The Japanese invasion cost the lives of more than 2,000 British soldiers and those of thousands of Japanese. At least 4,000 civilians died and 9,000 British, Indian and Canadian men were taken prisoner. There was great heroism, too, especially on the part of the local Volunteers Special Guard Company - all more than 55 years old - which held off the Japanese attack on the North Point power station for 14 hours until their ammunition ran out. But on Christmas Day, 1941, the Governor, Sir Mark Young, surrendered. The South China Morning Post ceased publication and did not reappear until August 30, 1945 - with just seven paragraphs on a single sheet of paper. It was headlined: ''EXTRA''. It was not long before Hong Kong's massive influx of refugees from the upheavals on the mainland became the victims of new disasters. On December 28, 1953, a fire roared through the squatter shacks of Pak Tin, Shek Kip Mei, Wor Tsai and Tai Po Road villages, devastating about 20 hectares of densely populated hillside and destroying 4,000 homes. Miraculously, only two people died in the inferno. The Post immediately put $5,000 into a relief fund for the 60,000 homeless and appealed to the people of Hong Kong to contribute. On October 30, 1971, people watched in horror as fire swept through the Jumbo floating restaurant which was in the final stages of preparation for its planned opening to the public in Aberdeen Harbour. Within five minutes, the flames had engulfed all three decks. Dozens of workmen leapt into the water, others clung to the sides of the structure, enduring terrible burns. ''It happened so quickly,'' wrote the Sunday Morning Post Herald. ''Cause of the fire was the presence on board of 200 painters, welders and workers putting the finishing touches for the opening of the restaurant.'' Sampans close by were set ablaze by sparks. Wong Fat-hoi related tearfully how his four children had burned to death in their floating home. The death toll rose to 33. But it was not the last great fire in Aberdeen harbour. On December 27, 1984, the Post reported that 1,700 boat-dwellers lost their homes after a huge fire gutted 150 closely packed vessels in the typhoon shelter. Incredibly, once again, only two people died. But the trail of death left by the deluge of June, 1972, far outstripped the Jumbo fire toll. After three days of torrential rain and thunderstorms, an avalanche poured down the hillside at Sau Mau Ping, burying 71 people under 10 metres of mud. On the same day, a landslide in Mid-Levels swept away part of Po Shan Road and brought the multi-storey Kotewall Court crashing down across another building in Babington Path, killing 55 people. Hundreds were evacuated from buildings in the area. The Post described the western corner of Mid-Levels as a ghost-town. The newspaper also reported that lawyer Henry Litton was freed from debris which had buried him after firemen heard him loudly singing the popular song, ''When I'm 64''. He was still cracking jokes as ambulancemen carried him away on a stretcher. The year had started with disaster. In January, 1972, the cruise ship, Queen Elizabeth, which had been brought to Hong Kong by shipping magnate C.Y. Tung and converted and renamed the Seawise University caught fire in the harbour, sending huge plumes of smoke over Kowloon and destroying the tycoon's dream of preserving one of the finest passenger liners ever built. The succeeding decades brought more disasters. In 1983, Typhoon Ellen ripped through Hong Kong, leaving six dead and 333 injured. About 80,000 homes were without electricity and claims for damage rose to $300 million. Across the border, in Donguan county, 32,000 people were marooned by floods. The Royal Observatory denied it had been caught napping. But the weather station on the island was so badly damaged that the Observatory staff had to be rescued. Three years later, in October 1986, fire swept through the 16-storey Blue-Box industrial building in Aberdeen, injuring 45. It was Hong Kong's worst factory blaze and took 1,000 firemen 68 hours to extinguish. Passages and stairs had been clogged with debris and material stored inside hampered access. In August, 1988, a CAAC airliner crashed in a rainstorm at Kai Tak airport, careening off the runway and landing with its nose in the water. The pilot, five crew and a passenger were killed. Two years later, a report into the crash revealed a catalogue of safety flaws and vindicated the Post's controversial claim that an overcrowded cockpit might have been a factor. Hong Kong's teeming Vietnamese boat people detention centres generated sporadic unrest. The worst incident was in February, 1991 - on the eve of Chinese New Year - when rioting South Vietnamese boat people at Sek Kong camp set fire to a hut packed with North Vietnamese. The blaze killed 24 people and dozens more suffered burns. Some cases are still being heard. In sentencing one group of defendants after 215 days in the District Court, Judge Wilson described the violence as ''an act of appalling savagery''. Hong Kong's heaviest downpour - 109.9 millimetres in a single hour - set off more killer mudslides on May 8, 1992. At the upmarket Baguio Villa estate in Pokfulam, mud cascaded into Block 44 and filled its lower floors with debris. Two people died, including seven-year-old Brendan Murphy. In the same downpour, a motorist was crushed by 150 tonnes of stones and mud on Kennedy Road and Michael Bill, 12, was swept away when a Mid-Levels waterfall where he was playing became a raging torrent. His body was never found. The most recent tragedy occurred in the Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district this year. Twenty-one young people were crushed to death as a huge crowd of New Year's Eve revellers flooded down the hill towards Central. The tragedy prompted calls for better crowd control and tighter rules on under-age drinking. The enquiry into the disaster avoided apportioning any blame, although it did include criticism of police standing orders on crowd control. But many people in the territory believed it was simply one of those catastrophes that fate has periodically wished upon Hong Kong.