French navy memorial in Hong Kong for five sailors who died in great typhoon of 1906 gets overdue restoration

The eight-metre-high granite memorial in Happy Valley commemorates sailors who died on the French destroyer Fronde in the 1906 Hong Kong typhoon. But hundreds more neglected historical monuments in the city also need restoring

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 7:34am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 7:34am

In a shady corner near the southern perimeter of the colonial cemetery in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley area, a team of specialists recently completed the restoration of an important historic monument.

The eight-metre-high granite memorial, erected in 1908, commemorates five sailors who lost their lives on the French torpedo destroyer Fronde, during one of the former British colony’s worst natural disasters – the great typhoon of September 18, 1906.

“This monument is an important historic symbol – the French community has always been active and dynamic in Hong Kong,” says historian François Drémeaux, who is head of Le Souvenir Français de Chine.

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“It is the purpose of the Souvenir Français History Society to take care of the remains of the French presence, especially when it comes to war graves and funeral monuments,” Drémeaux explains.

It was Drémeaux who led the campaign to have the memorial restored after a local conservator noticed how badly it had fallen into disrepair while he was conducting an historical graveyard tour.

“I noticed there were trees taking root and the stones at the top of the monument could have been dislodged,” says local historian and conservator Paul Harrison of Phoenix Conservation. Harrison informed the French consulate, who contacted Drémeaux, and the restoration was commissioned just in time.

“When we chipped at the cement between the stones, water gushed out. There were plants growing out of the gaps in the stone. It was stained black, the lettering had faded and the western base was buried under earth,” says Harrison, as he inspects the finished project, which took two weeks to complete. “Now it’s good as new,” he says.

Harrison adds that because cemeteries in Hong Kong are administered by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, the priority is the hygienic disposal of human remains. There is rarely any interest – or budget – for preserving the hundreds of historical monuments at Happy Valley.

The cemetery is spotted with cracked, stained and crumbling monuments, including the ornate graves of some of the most distinguished and notorious characters from the city’s past. Fallen and broken piles of masonry are left in an untidy pile near the entrance.

The French community held a gala dinner on April 13 that raised about half the required funds for the restoration. The balance was raised through a campaign on Kickstarter, which collected HK$54,000 (US$6,900) from 24 backers within 48 hours. For Drémeaux, an expert on the French community in Hong Kong, the memorial is a symbol of France’s influence in the city’s maritime past, when visiting French warships and passenger liners were a common sight.

“The Fronde monument is the only witness of this exciting past,” he says, adding that the monument demonstrates that Hong Kong has always been a “world city”. It is also a priceless part of Hong Kong’s heritage because it is one of the few remaining physical reminders of one of the city’s most devastating historical incidents.

Experts are divided over whether the typhoon of 1906 or 1937 was the most calamitous in terms of lives lost, but there is no doubt that the former was socially devastating.

“Hong Kong has just suffered from a catastrophe as calamitous, if not more so, than any that has previously befallen the colony,” said Governor Sir Frederick Lugard, just two days after the event.

According to the Hong Kong Observatory, the 1906 typhoon claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people out of a total population of about 320,000. Victims were mostly local fishermen and boatpeople. It also devastated the maritime infrastructure on which the city’s economy depended. Some 2,983 fishing boats and 670 ocean-going vessels were lost.

“A gentleman who came to town from Shau-ki-wan [sic] this morning said that all along, from Shau-ki-wan and as far down as Causeway Bay, the water and the beach are strewn with corpses,” the Hong Kong Telegraph reported on September 22, 1906. The victims that were not claimed were wrapped with straw mats, towed out to sea on large improvised boards and dumped in hasty mass burials.

The British seemed to forget that the French in Indochina paid for half of it, and the inscription only says ‘erected by the British community in Hong Kong’
Paul Harrison of Phoenix Conservation

It was not just its intensity that made the typhoon so lethal. According to a report by the Observatory afterwards, it “gave no indication of its existence until close to the colony”.

Two hours before it struck, wind speeds were measured at less than 25 knots and the harbour was as busy as usual. Normally, the red signal would be hoisted when a typhoon was 500 miles from the vicinity of Hong Kong. At 300 miles, the black signal would be hoisted, allowing plenty of time for boats to seek shelter or lay out more anchor cable, and for captains to rejoin their vessels from ashore to supervise preventive measures.

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On September 18, 1906, there was very little warning. The black signal was hoisted at 8am and by 8.40am the typhoon gun was being fired, indicating the storm’s imminent approach. According to local press reports, it was already too late. By 9am the seas were treacherous and it was impossible to navigate within the harbour. It was not just the winds gusting at over 150 knots; a huge tidal surge lifted vessels including the Fronde and dumped them like driftwood in roads and along the coastline.

At 300 tonnes displacement and a length of 58.3 metres, the Fronde was not a large warship, but it was a well-built ocean-going destroyer. It was left stranded and half-submerged on the Praya near the torpedo depot in Kowloon, beside what is now the China Ferry Terminal. The bodies of the five sailors – two petty officers and three quartermasters – were never recovered.

By 11am the storm had passed, leaving the city shocked and trying to gauge the scale of destruction. There was widespread criticism of the Observatory and an official commission of inquiry was established, though it was subsequently calculated that the typhoon was only 100 miles in diameter, so almost impossible to forecast with the technology available at the time.

According to the account of the Fronde in Hong Kong French Connections, published in 2012 and edited by Drémeaux, the disappearance of the five French sailors in the typhoon “strongly affected the British community” and the French community in Indochina. It was the very close ties between Saigon and Hong Kong that led to a subscription being organised for the memorial.

It was also only two years after the Entente Cordial had been signed by Britain and France, forging a new alliance after centuries of war and colonial rivalry. Any opportunity to underpin the new nascent friendship would have been grasped with both hands by the political elite on both sides. Some 9,000 Chinese lost their lives that day and many other Europeans, including the Bishop of Victoria, J.C. Hoare, and three British sea captains. None of them merited similar commemoration though.

It was late November before the battered Fronde was refloated by the salvage tug Protector and towed to Kowloon dock for repairs, eventually being towed back to Saigon in March 1907.

The memorial was not unveiled until May 14, 1908 and its original location was not Happy Valley but the junction of Jordan Road and Gascoigne Road, in Kowloon. It was a lavish ceremony and, according to the Hong Kong Telegraph, included a detachment of sailors from HMS Monmouth, the French cruiser Alger and gunboat Argus, and was headed by the band of the Middlesex Regiment. The great and the good of the colony and Saigon were all present in a blatantly bilateral ceremony.

For decades, the monument was a well-known local landmark, but despite the entente cordial, when the monument was discretely moved to the quiet corner of Happy Valley cemetery to make way for development (in the 1960s or ’70s – no one the Post spoke to seems quite sure) the authorities failed to inform their French counterparts. And there is another curious anomaly.

“The British seemed to forget that the French in Indochina paid for half of it, and the inscription only says ‘erected by the British community in Hong Kong’,” says Harrison, who understands the French community would now like to see a new plaque indicating their role in the original monument and their funding of the recent restoration.

Without the efforts of Hong Kong’s French community, this important monument would have been allowed to degrade and disintegrate, and its story lost to future generations.

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“I’m very relieved the monument has been restored,” says Harrison. “But there are hundreds more neglected historical monuments in the cemetery in desperate need of attention.”