Growing up in Singapore, an island ensconced in a region of relatively calm waters, the strongest winds I had experienced before moving to Hong Kong in 1999 were those accompanying the occasional violent rainstorm. Imagine my shock when, a few days after relocating, I witnessed, wide-eyed from my window in the New Territories, the raw and destructive power of Typhoon York. The typhoon signal No 10 was in force for 11 hours that day, making it the longest on record.
Nineteen years to the day since York, the signal No 10 was raised again, for 10 hours. Although I was in Shenzhen this time, the city’s geographical contiguity with Hong Kong meant that Typhoon Mangkhut hit us the same time as it did the SAR.
Mangkhut felt even more terrifyingthan the first typhoon I experienced almost two decades ago, but I am convinced that faster internet and mobile connections and the ubiquity of social media in 2018 were factors in disseminating fears.
The real-time posting of videos and photographs of Mangkhut’s devastation spooked me even as I tried to distract myself with a film on the 18th floor of a building that was swaying ever so slightly. I didn’t want to look at them, but of course I did, and the more I scrolled, the more anxious I got.
There are many records of typhoons battering the extensive eastern and southern coasts of pre-modern China, especially in the late imperial period, by which time the seaboard was heavily populated. Apart from descriptions of death and mayhem, these accounts also contain interesting stories related to the forces of nature.
One of the words used to describe typhoons in these texts is shiyoufeng, literally “the Shi and You winds”, the origins of which lie in a beautiful story.
Once upon a time, there lived Madam Shi and Mr You, a married couple who were very much in love. One day, You left home on a long business trip. Shi tried to persuade him not to go but she could not stop him. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years, but You did not return.
Forlorn with sorrow and longing, Shi fell gravely ill. Before she died, Shi said: “If I had stopped him from going, things would have turned out differently.” And then she made a solemn promise: “When I die, I shall turn into a powerful wind for the sake of all the women in the world, to stop their men from taking long trips.” And so, strong winds that obstructed commercial activities became known as shiyoufeng, after the loving couple.
Another story involving wind centres on a strange incident in the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). In Licheng (present-day Jinan, in Shandong province), there lived a widower surnamed Wang. One day, there was a great wind and the sky turned dark. When the wind died down, Wang found a nubile girl among the debris. She said she was from a foreign country and was swept up by the wind as she was travelling in her carriage. The widower Wang took her as his wife and the Wang family prospered for 100 years.
In contrast, the stories that emerged after Mangkhut’s onslaught have been more prosaic, given that the infrastructure of Hong Kong and much of southern China remained largely intact and typhoon-related injuries and death were minimal in the region. They were tales of ordinary people getting on with everyday life, which are the best kind of stories.