As Super Typhoon Mangkhut nears southern China, some Hong Kong villagers determined to ride out monster storm
Hardened souls in Lantau village of Tai O, where many live in boats or flimsy stilt houses, were busy preparing for an onslaught on Saturday, but many elderly residents were reluctant to leave despite government advice to take no chances
With the world’s strongest storm this year just hours away from southern China, many residents of coastal areas have been told to take no chances. But in Tai O, a fishing village in an exposed location on the western edge of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, many on Saturday remained unfazed by warnings of impending destruction.
Super Typhoon Mangkhut is set to pummel the city with winds of up to 200km/h come Sunday, yet many villagers were on Saturday insisting on staying until the last possible minute, and some were refusing to leave at all.
The streets were eerily quiet in the morning, with only a few shops open and a handful of tourists wandering through normally crowded alleys. A clear blue sky and stillness in the air belied the danger ahead.
The typhoon tore through the northern tip of the Philippines on Saturday packing winds of more than 200km/h along with torrential rain. At least three people died and the storm caused floods, landslides and power outages.
But Fan Ming and her mother were among those in Tai O determined to ride it out. Fan came to the village on Saturday to help her mother prepare.
“My mum used to live on a boat,” she said. “She knows if we will need to evacuate.”
Many villagers, especially the elderly, were greatly attached to the place and the small fishing boats some lived on, Fan said.
“We will not leave unless the water comes up to our chest,” she insisted.
Other Tai O residents live in flimsy stilt houses built on a river running through the village, which is home to more than 2,000 people.
Fan’s mother runs a seafood shop and they live on the ground floor of the building. Volunteers were on Saturday helping the pair load their belongings onto higher ground, as items such as fridges were too heavy to lift alone. Amid their preparations, they found themselves without sandbags to slow any floodwater, after the village’s rural committee ran short.
Another resident, an 85-year-old surnamed Yip, was putting away his vegetable stand, using ropes to fasten it to a pole. He said he was not planning to leave because he and his wife lived on the third floor.
“The water didn’t reach us last year,” he said. “I hope this typhoon won’t be too strong.”
Lau King-cheung had organised a volunteer group of more than 80 to whip around the village on Saturday making preparations. They began at 10am and fanned out across the neighbourhood in several groups. Their aim was to minimise any losses by helping residents suspend expensive electronic appliances above ground and reminding them to take precautions.
But they also appealed to villagers, especially those in stilt houses or areas affected by serious flooding in the past, to move to temporary shelters provided by the government.
However, Lau said “a lot of people want to wait and see”.
“Because the weather looks so good right now, some think it might not get much worse,” he said.
Forecasters disagreed. The Hong Kong Observatory said winds would pick up sharply after midnight, with a No 10 typhoon signal possible on Sunday, the highest in the authority’s warning system.
Cheng Cho-ming, assistant director at the Observatory, said Mangkhut remained strong and posed a “serious threat” to the region. The whole of Hong Kong would be affected, he said.
Tai O temporary shelters and a transit centre were open in the afternoon, including one at the rural committee office and another two at the nearby Lung Tin estate. The Islands District Office said it would run coaches to transfer residents to the shelters in Tung Chung and Mui Wo as appropriate.
An engineer surnamed Cheung was strengthening the roofs of shacks in the area by affixing more screws. “Some were blown off last year,” he said. “So I’m fixing them just in case.”
He had done about 20 in the last few days, he said.
Another 50 volunteers from the Red Cross also joined the preparation work. Civil Aid Service sent 40 members to Tai O in the morning. Together with those from the rural committee, Island District and police, they numbered about 200 in total, according to Wong Lai-min, a member of staff from the office of Islands district officer Yu Hon-kwan.
Leung Wai-ming, 70, had hung almost everything he could in his house – including chairs, beds, a computer and television – above ground.
“Last time the water was below the knees,” he said. “This time the stuff should stay dry.”
But he and his wife planned to leave in the afternoon.
Of the few remaining tourists in the village, one surnamed Qiu, from Zhongshan, in Guangdong province, said she would soon be on her way.
“We know there will be a typhoon, but thought it would hit tomorrow. We plan to leave early today,” she said.
And it was not just humans at risk. Cheung Man-fong, founder of Tai O Stray Cat Home, had taken four felines to a temporary shelter.
Cheung said some had owners, but had been left on the streets unattended. She was worried about several strays near the village pier.
“They are unlikely to survive if the storm comes,” she said.
A 93-year-old resident, also surnamed Cheung, who lived in a shack with his son, said he would not leave. “I have been living here since I was a child,” the villager said.
Instead he would head to a feast in the evening known as poon choi at a local restaurant next to the village’s Kwan Tai Temple, before hunkering down for the onslaught of the typhoon.
An organiser with the committee that runs the temple was asked if he feared the storm. He simply smiled and said the village “would be blessed”.