For little thanks and no extra pay, these brave few kept Hong Kong safe, fed, and cared for during Typhoon Mangkhut
Security guard, restaurant manager and doctor among unsung heroes who went about their daily lives as city residents remained at home waiting for storm to pass
It was 6.15am on Sunday, September 16, and 67-year-old Chung Man-bun woke up to the sound of pelting rain. Every now and then, the windows of his public flat rattled menacingly.
Typhoon Mangkhut was no ordinary storm, and Hong Kong was bracing itself for its arrival.
While most people were staying indoors, duty called for Chung, a security guard at a commercial building near his home.
Armed with his biggest umbrella, he left his flat in Yuen Long and headed out into the approaching storm.
“Typhoon or no typhoon, there’s no exception. I have to go to work,” Chung told the Post. “I got up earlier than usual because I knew I’d need extra time to get there.”
Mangkhut, which was a severe typhoon by the time it reached the city, battered Hong Kong, leaving 400 people injured, causing unprecedented damage, and costing an estimated US$1 billion in insurance.
About 1,500 trees were uprooted, there were more than 46,000 reports of fallen trees, and hundreds of windows shattered.
The police received 20,000 calls for help on Sunday, compared to about 6,000 on a normal weekend.
Apart from government rescue services, people working in tourism, catering, logistics and medical services, as well as security guards such as Chung, went to work to keep the city alive.
Guarding against the storm
Chung, a security guard for the past 28 years, works at a commercial building a few train stops from his home. The 23-storey building has commercial offices and, usually, Chung is part of a team of 10 other security guards that help maintain the safety and operation of the building.
Leaving the safety of his home and family that morning, he did not know what the day would hold.
“I said it should be no problem for me to work because I live the closest. I volunteered to take the extra shift,” he said.
Chung made his way to the light rail stop near his home, only to see a notice that said the service was suspended.
“The only thing on my mind was that I had to get to work, so I rolled up my trousers and started walking,” he says.
After 30 minutes of wading through ankle-deep water, he arrived at his workplace at 7am.
“I was not too worried because I work inside a building. I felt safe,” said Chung, who is married with two children. “My family weren’t too concerned either because they know it’s my job.”
Through the morning, the sky got darker and it became windier. At about 9.40am, the Hong Kong Observatory issued the typhoon signal No 10, which meant Mangkhut was going to be a menace.
It was also time for Chung to go on patrol, while the only other guard who had made it to work stayed on the ground floor.
With a flashlight in one hand, and a walkie-talkie in the other, he took the lift to the rooftop, then made his way down by the staircase, checking each floor as he went.
Chung sensed something was wrong as he walked down from the 20th floor to the 19th.
“There was this chilly breeze blowing across the lift lobby, which was odd because all the windows of the building are glued shut,” he said.
As he went to check, he found himself wading through water. Documents, folders and large piles of glass swirled around the corridor.
“Moments later, I saw that one of the office window panels had been shattered by the wind,” he recalled.
Chung grabbed a sweep from the storage room and began pushing the water towards the drain.
“I cannot imagine what would have happened if the water went down and filled the lift pits,” he said.
He ended up sweeping water for hours. “Three windows were broken during my back-to-back shifts,” he said.
A colleague was supposed to relieve him on Sunday evening, but was stuck at home. So Chung just kept going, working from 7am on Sunday to 7am the next day.
“It was safer for me to stay indoors rather than try to scramble over trees, branches and broken glass to get home anyway,” he said.
A day off on Tuesday is all he got from his employer for taking the extra shift, and there was no bonus or token of thanks from his boss.
Not that the veteran guard cares about the recognition. “It is just part of my job,” he says with a shrug.
Keep feeding the city
Despite the city coming to a standstill on Sunday, people still wanted to eat out. Many fast-food chains remained open and for some, typhoon days are actually their busiest.
Most of the staff working for the likes of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Cafe de Coral, and Maxim’s Cafe braved the storm to feed the city.
Daniel Chu, 35, a manager at a restaurant in Kwun Tong district, started his shift at 6am on Sunday.
On leaving his flat and experiencing the strength of the storm, the first thing that popped into his mind was the safety of his staff.
“I was worried my colleagues wouldn’t be able to get to work, or it would be dangerous for them to try to commute in the typhoon,” he says.
Company policy allows for managers to offer free rides to employees, so Chu took his seven-seater vehicle and started collecting his staff, who were not paid any extra for working during the storm.
“I could feel side wind pushing my car,” Chu says. “It got worse when I was at a stop light, I could feel the car moving sideways which was really scary because I felt so helpless.
“The only thing I could do was to grip tight onto the steering wheel so the wind would not swerve my car into oncoming traffic.”
Three trips and more than two hours later, Chu, and another manager, had collected the 15 staff that would normally work on a typical weekend, when the restaurant is open from 7am until midnight.
It was when taking a fourth trip, to park the car for a final time, that Chu eventually ran into trouble.
“I was trying to drive around a fallen tree to get to the underground car park when another tree toppled right in front of the car, trapping me in between the two huge trees,” he recalls.
Chu managed to escape the car unharmed, but he had to leave his vehicle, scratched and slightly damaged, in the road.
“What if another tree falls right on my car, that would kill me! So, I left and walked to work, which was only a few minutes away,” he says.
Even in extreme weather, the restaurant is expected to maintain a normal service, although deliveries are suspended when No 8 typhoon signals or higher are issued.
“It got very hectic as the day went by because we were the only restaurant open in the area,” Chu says. “Customers started rushing in during lunch hour.
“Because we did not deliver, we saw as many customers in just one afternoon as we would normally see on a full day on Sundays.”
While he says he was happy all the staff were able to work, Chu is adamant about one thing. He will never be driving his colleagues to work again when another storm strikes the city.
“This is the worst I have experienced. I realised that was not the smartest idea,” he says. “But I am just thankful no one was hurt.”
Treating the sick
The hospital ward seemed quieter than usual on a stormy day. Even with the sound of strong wind in the trees outside the hospitals, the patients were fast asleep. The severe weather kept visitors away.
Doctor Adam Wong, 27, who preferred to use a pseudonym for the interview, started his shift at 9am that Sunday.
Knowing that Mangkhut was on its way, he left home for work earlier and was prepared to spend Sunday night in hospital.
“Many doctors and nurses did the same to avoid the risk of not being able to get to work on time,” says the specialist in internal medicine at a hospital in the New Territories.
“All of us came together and made sure patients were taken care of, and those who came in would be treated accordingly.”
Inside the ward, nurses had already moved all the beds away from the windows.
Throughout the storm, patients had spent the day resting, chatting, and flipping through television channels to monitor the latest storm updates. Some talked on the phone to their families, who called to make sure they were OK.
Unlike its usual overcrowded status, the general ward was unusually quiet during the storm.
According to the Hospital Authority, 458 people – 248 male and 210 female – visited the city’s 17 public emergency rooms from Sunday to Monday, September 17. It was the lowest total public hospitals had seen in recent years, according to the authority’s chief executive, Dr Leung Pak-yin.
Throughout his 28-hour shift, Wong only saw two new patients. One was a man in his 40s who had just had a heart attack.
“You know it’s serious if he had rushed to the hospital even under a No. 10 typhoon,” he says.
Moments after he was admitted, the specialist realised the man was suffering from dysrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.
As the storm rumbled on in the background, Wong decided to perform a lumbar puncture on his patient, a procedure that helps diagnose if there is abnormality in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
“Normally we would send the patient to another ward for procedures as complicated as this one, but because the hospital were not as busy as it usually is, I was able to spend more time with him,” he recalls.
After about 15 minutes, the man’s heart returned to a normal rhythm.
Wong let the patient rest, knowing he would need more care.
But, knowing the worst was over Wong left the ward, but waited out the rest of the storm in hospital.
One of the lucky ones, he was able to find a bed to sleep in, others slept on couches, or in sleeping bags in the corridors.
“Typhoons come and go every year in Hong Kong,” Wong says. “But no matter the severity of the storm, the hospital does not stop operating just because of the weather. It is our duty to treat patients no matter what.”