Ask Mr. Know-It-All: What’s the story behind the Noonday Gun?
Dear Mr. Know-It-All, What’s the story behind the Noonday Gun? — Powder Monkey
The venerable Noonday Gun is the kind of thing that we locals tend to forget about, marooned as it is on the other side of the highway from Causeway Bay. But it was immortalized by Noel Coward in his 1931 song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”:
In Hong Kong they strike a gong and fire off the Noonday Gun...
To reprimand each inmate who’s in late...
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!
But singalongs aside, the Noonday Gun has a history of its very own. Its first location was a little to the south of where it stands now, in East Point—now Causeway Bay. East Point was the earliest bit of land to be privately auctioned back in 1841, and Jardine Matheson snapped it up. The mighty trading hong had made its money by dealing an awful lot of opium to an awful lot of Chinese people, and so it had cash to spare and a business to grow. East Point became the center of Jardine’s warehouses, and its trade—both in drugs and later in more morally sound enterprises—helped make Hong Kong what it is today.
It might surprise you to learn that having a lot of land and money is the kind of thing that goes to your head. And we might have that fiscal self-satisfaction to thank for the Noonday Gun. The story goes that in the 1860s, the staff of Jardine’s used to greet the big boss—the Tai-Pan, a term invented for the firm’s founder William Jardine—by firing off a 21-gun salute when he arrived in the harbor. This, as any elementary reading of naval fiction will reveal, is the type of respectful gesture reserved for the arrival of admirals and governors. No mere merchant deserves such a welcome.
An unimpressed British naval officer took umbrage and handed down an order: If the Jardine employees were so attached to their salutes, they could fire off a gun every day at noon to work off some of their trigger-happiness. Is it true? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s possible that the gun was simply fired so that people could set their watches every day at noon, or simply to alert everyone when a Jardine ship arrived in the harbor. But that’s not as good a story, is it?
These days, matters are a little different. Corporations don’t kowtow to disgruntled naval officers. But the tradition of the Noonday Gun has continued, interrupted only by World War II: a final shot of colonialism in a decidedly, literally, post-colonial city.
In fact, you can fire the thing yourself if you’d like. Jardine offers a chance at the firing lanyard to anyone who donates $33,000 to the Community Chest (www.commchest.org). Sure, it’s a lot of money: But at least you know your watch will be accurate.