Hong Kong appeared to many to be doomed. It could surely never recover from destruction, human casualties and economic loss on such a scale. Wave after wave of disaster had hit the city in late summer and autumn. First came an unnamed typhoon, gusting in on September 1, 1937, with winds so strong that the Hong Kong Observatory was incapable of registering their true strength, its instruments unable to measure wind velocity beyond 200km/h. Boats upended, buildings and entire streets were destroyed, whole villages swept away by tidal waves. Then came fire, sweeping through slums and grand shoreline districts alike, taking lives, destroying homes, shops and hotels, and leaving hospitals overwhelmed. There followed epidemics, first cholera, then typhoid and malaria. As if that were not enough, an unprecedented wave of refugees descended upon the territory thanks to the earthquake in the Philippines, war in Shanghai, and more typhoon devastation as well as severe cholera outbreaks in southern China, Macau and Taiwan. Older Hongkongers remembered the terrible typhoon of 1906 , in which 10,000 people had died, and the massive typhoon in 1923, which lasted nearly four days. Yet this typhoon, they said, was mightier. The Observatory claimed wind speeds had reached 240km/h. There had, of course, been warnings leading up to September 1, but no one had predicted the ferocity of the storm. Scores of flimsy houses and squatter shacks in the poorer parts of Hong Kong Island were destroyed with many bodies crushed beneath rubble or swept away. Untold numbers of people were killed, the colonial authorities having no accurate figures for those living in the poorer quarters. Wireless towers were torn down and the communications network was rendered inoperable, severely hampering rescue efforts. Being close to the harbour’s edge, water was waist-high in Central’s Queen’s Road, Des Voeux Road and Pedder Street. Fallen masonry, smashed shop windows, roofs ripped clean off and wrecked and overturned cars littered the streets. The harbour was in utter chaos. Fifty ships lay at anchor, including battle cruisers of the Royal Navy’s China Station, tramp steamers, cargo ships, passenger liners and smaller steam ferries, all having fled before the storm to seek safety in Hong Kong’s typhoon shelters. Several shiploads of evacuees from the Japanese attack on Shanghai in mid-August had arrived in port just days earlier and were waiting to disembark. The converted cargo ship Hunan alone, fortunately safely anchored, had aboard 1,200 Chinese refugees. The 17,000-tonne Japanese passenger liner Asama Maru, recently arrived from Tokyo and moored in Kowloon Bay, broke away from its moorings and drifted out of control through Victoria Harbour, past Causeway Bay and Quarry Bay, before being swept into Chai Wan. Nearby, at Cape Collinson (Hak Kok Tau), the SS Conte Verde, a 19,000-tonne Italian passenger liner, ran aground and lost steering power. With 90 passengers aboard, it was swept round to Chai Wan and smashed into the Asama Maru. Rescue tugs were needed to save the vessels’ stranded crews. Chinese passenger ferry the An Lee, recently arrived from Canton, snapped its anchor chain in the storm. At just over 1,000 tonnes, it was a smallish vessel and no match for the winds. Eyewitnesses claimed the An Lee literally flew across the harbour and crashed into British battle cruiser HMS Suffolk, the 10,000-tonne flagship of the China Station. A dozen Chinese crew members of the An Lee were thrown with such force that they landed on the deck of the Suffolk. The An Lee continued its crazed drift across the harbour, smashing into the 1,400-tonne British destroyer HMS Diamond and then, finally, into the HMS Duchess, severely denting the Royal Navy ship’s bow. Collision with the larger and securely tethered 1,400-tonne Duchess bounced the An Lee onshore, skidding onto the waterfront Praya Road to ditch there stern-first with its bow submerged. The remaining, and it is safe to assume, much shaken crew, were rescued and led to safety by police and customs men who formed human chains to pull them across the harbourfront. A brief history of Hong Kong typhoons The chaos in the harbour continued as the winds, described by the Associated Press as “brutal fists” assaulting all that was anchored or concrete in their path, remained record-breaking. The 4,600-tonne SS Van Heutsz, a Dutch-flagged cargo ship carrying some passengers that had arrived from Batavia (present-day Jakarta), was blown clean out of the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter and smashed on the rocks of Green Island, just off the northwest coast of Kennedy Town. The crew and passengers scrambled off and found shelter in the lighthouse. The Swire-owned China Navigation Company saw two of its steamers grounded: the Shuntien lost all power and was washed ashore at Tsing Yi while the Kwangchow ran aground on the south side of Lamma Island. A steamer, Shinping, washed up ashore on Lantau Island. Jardine Matheson was less lucky – its vessel, the Mausang, was one of several that sunk outright. Eighteen of the 50 ships in and around Victoria Harbour were driven aground and nearly a dozen went down. Most tragically, the typhoon wiped out communities of sampan dwellers at Aberdeen and other inlets. Hundreds of sampans, which also served as homes, were dashed ashore, “like chips against the sea wall” reported a journalist at the time. Many sampan dwellers were drowned. In total, 1,855 fishing boats and sampans were capsized; their occupants accounted for most of the deaths caused by the typhoon. More than 34 hours after it hit Hong Kong, the tempest finally subsided. Winds dropped and a steady rain fell. Hong Kong could breathe again, but not for long. When the typhoon struck, fires had quickly sprang up in Hong Kong Island’s poorer districts to the west of Central and Kennedy Town. The typhoon’s dying winds fanned the flames through the flimsy wooden shacks. A house in Western district collapsed, killing its 15 inhabitants. As the blaze spread to the next building, 12 more died, and the fire was soon raging out of control. How one of the worst fires in Hong Kong’s history started Central at least had firefighters, though waist-high water and roads blocked by debris hampered their access. A row of seven shops on Connaught Road West (then the shoreline) was razed to the ground while sporadic fires broke out on Hollywood Road. In the New Territories, emergency resources were more scarce. A fire in a Tai Po tenement building caused it to eventually collapse, killing 50 people. In Sha Tau Kok, in the north of the New Territories close to the border with Guangdong province, most houses were swept away and most those that remained were gutted by fire. Everywhere across the devastated colony flood seemed to be followed by flames. Coastal fishing communities were especially hard hit. At the end of the first day of the typhoon, the estimated death toll from flood, fire and structural collapse stood at about 500. The authorities assumed that figure would rise as the rescue effort got under way. A day later, it had reached 1,000; two days later, 3,000 and counting. The total would be far, far higher. Hong Kong’s health care system and emergency response services were stretched to the limit. Refugees were massed at the border, a wall of water having surged inland along the Pearl River, washing away farmland and villages. Macau had not escaped the typhoon, its population of boat dwellers nearly wiped out by the storm, and then cholera struck. The disease was already ravaging southern China and within days it was reported in Taiwan. Hong Kong, then, became a haven too for refugees from Macau, Taiwan and Guangdong, where anti-cholera serum was in short supply. Asia had also seen minor earthquakes across Japan and Shandong province that summer. In late August, the Philippine island of Luzon (which also suffered at the hands of the same typhoon that devastated Hong Kong) had been rocked by an earthquake whose epicentre was just kilometres from central Manila. Macau: the rise and fall of an empire? The 7.5-magnitude quake, the most severe to hit Luzon for more than four decades, was felt as far off as the summer hill resort of Baguio, up to 320km away from the epicentre. Remarkably, there were few casualties, but Manila saw massive destruction of its buildings and infrastructure, forcing thousands to set up camp on its outskirts. The city’s power grid had been knocked out and 600,000 people were left in darkness, except for the glow from occasional fires raging in outlying districts. Further tremors continued to terrify an already panicked and now largely homeless populace. With cholera also raging in the devastated streets of Manila, large numbers of Filipinos took to evacuation ships and set out for what they expected would be the safe harbour of Hong Kong. In Victoria Harbour, more evacuees were arriving following the “Bloody Saturday” bombings of August 14 in Shanghai . They, too, required treatment, and Hong Kong’s most pressing task was to inoculate as many people as possible to stop the cholera outbreak getting out of control. That meant sourcing serum for both Hong Kong citizens and the arriving refugees. It was unclear in Hong Kong whether a full evacuation of all foreign nationals from Shanghai would take place, nor whether Japanese bombers might take advantage of the disarray to attack the city as they had done in the Chinese parts of Shanghai. Wireless towers were still down following the typhoon and the emergency antennas were unreliable, so contact with besieged Shanghai was erratic. There was effectively a news blackout between the two ports. Cholera had first been detected in Hong Kong just before the typhoon struck. It had initially been diagnosed among poor Chinese thought to have been recent arrivals from Guangdong, where the disease had been detected as far back as May. Hong Kong had been preparing anti-cholera serum stocks in anticipation of its spread, and on the day of the typhoon 48 cases were identified, bringing the total to more than 1,000, with 300 dead. Hong Kong having been drenched for 34 hours solid, it quickly became apparent to health officials that a disease borne within bacteria-infected water was about to explode. Authorities enacted emergency measures and attempted to inoculate thousands of people each day from 50 hastily established treatment centres. Long queues formed as people waited for their jab, a wait exacerbated by the refugee crisis. Kowloon Station was packed with refugees from Guangdong. Happy Valley Racecourse initially sheltered 1,000 people, but that number rose rapidly as 20,000 new refugees sought sanctuary. An estimated 30,000 more arrived in the city from mainland China by coastal steamers, the KCR or land borders. Checkpoints were undermanned and overloaded. Many arrivals had not registered and so were not inoculated. The pools of stagnant water, flooded and contaminated wells and the damaged mains (where they existed) soon combined to exacerbate the cholera epidemic with outbreaks of typhoid and, as the mosquitoes bred, malaria. It was widely believed that patients contracted cholera through eating fish from infected water. Fish markets were closed, and the local Catholic Church announced that for the duration of the epidemic parishioners should eat meat on Fridays instead of fish. No health care system could have been prepared for the numbers made homeless by typhoon and fires, or for the many more undocumented refugees. It would have been unfeasible to have maintained the stocks of serum required to inoculate the entire local population as well as new arrivals. It needed a multinational effort to save Hong Kong. The regional response to support Hong Kong was swift and aided the local inoculation effort. Over the early summer months, Shanghai had been sending large amounts of anti-cholera serum to Hong Kong, but the Japanese now had control of the skies over Shanghai and shipments could no longer get through. The Shanghai Municipal Council was able to provide supplies to evacuee ships from Shanghai so those aboard could at least be inoculated before they disembarked in Hong Kong. Britain’s Imperial Airways flew in 250 litres of serum from the Dutch East Indies via Singapore, enough to inoculate a quarter of a million people. The United States Navy in Manila sent more supplies of serum from its stocks. But it still wasn’t enough. When several cases of bubonic plague appeared, Hong Kong made the decision to shut the port. Skyluck, the ship that smuggled 2,600 boatpeople to Hong Kong – and freedom All ships in the Pacific heading from Hong Kong and China to the US had been instructed to call in at Honolulu and quarantine from late August. Now ocean liners out of Hong Kong that reached Japan were quarantined at Kobe. Air services from Hong Kong to the US were effectively quarantine wards in their own right – US public health officials claimed that cholera symptoms appeared after a maximum of five days and the China Clipper seaplane service from Hong Kong to San Francisco took six days. It meant simply that nobody could get on or off at the scheduled stops – Macau, Manila, Wake Island, Guam or Honolulu. When the plane landed at San Francisco, they opened the doors and waited to see what shape the passengers were in. The Hong Kong authorities contacted Pan American Airways, which operated China Clipper, and asked for help. Pan Am agreed. A correspondent from Popular Aviation magazine who witnessed the procedure detailed what happened next: “At Red Cross national headquarters, a request is received by radiogram from those in charge of relief in China. Instruments, antitoxin and anaesthetic masks are imperatively needed. Red tape has been eliminated. It takes no time to put an OK on the request. “Several hundred miles away the sales manager of a company manufacturing medical and doctors’ supplies sits at his desk. His phone rings. ‘This is the Red Cross in Washington, it is imperative we get 15 fitted surgical cases, 25,000 doses of tetanus gas gangrene antitoxin, and 100 anaesthetic masks aboard the next Pan Am China Clipper. Can you do it?’” They could and the supplies were shipped from a Detroit warehouse to San Francisco in time to catch the late-night departure of the China Clipper bound for Hong Kong. From the colony, smaller planes could then fly supplies over the flood-water-drenched southern Chinese provinces and drop supplies to rural communities and villages from specially fitted racks on the bottom of their fuselages. What looked like it might escalate into an uncontrollable quadruple whammy of epidemics – cholera, pneumonia, malaria and typhoid (not forgetting the lurking threat of bubonic plague) – in largely serum-free southern China was avoided. Eventually the infection rate in Hong Kong decreased. Serum had been key. In the end, just over 1,000 people died of cholera in Hong Kong. Across the border in Guangdong, where, despite the efforts of the Red Cross, inoculation had been hampered by flooding, poor health care infrastructure and Japanese interference preventing serum supplies from coming south from Shanghai and Nanjing, the story was a more tragic one. Of the 28,000 victims in total in Guangdong, the epicentre, 80 per cent died for want of serum. Why Jewish refugees in World War II fled safety of Shanghai In Hong Kong, the total number of people killed by the typhoon and the fires that followed was thought to be about 11,000, or 1 per cent of the colony’s population, with nearly 200 people never accounted for, their bodies lost to the storm. The vast majority of fatalities were fishermen and boat dwellers. Typhoid and malaria abated. No more bubonic plague cases were reported, and the colony slowly returned to normal. The waters receded, the masonry and smashed glass were swept up, the dead buried, the harbour reopened. The Conte Verde was refloated in October while the Asama Maru had to have her destroyed engines removed and was not returned to Nagasaki to be repaired for another six months. Later, both the Asama Maru and the Conte Verde were involved in transporting European Jewish refugees to sanctuary in Shanghai. Although the cholera epidemic spread to nine Chinese provinces it was largely contained in southern China, though cases did appear as far north as Manchuria and Hunan. The epidemic slowly dissipated in Macau, Taiwan and the Philippines. Quarantine in Kobe and Honolulu was effective, the cholera epidemic never reaching Japan or the US. Mass inoculation was a success and the tide of infections was stemmed. Coordinated international efforts had dampened the impact of the outbreak. The economic price, though, was staggering. The Observatory estimated that the typhoon alone had cost Hong Kong HK$585,734: equivalent to 40 per cent of the colony’s entire expenditure on disaster repairs over the previous decade. And never before had Hong Kong experienced such a litany of disasters in so short a period of time.