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Tuesday, 17th November 2009

A century-old weather map

Visitors to the Observatory's forecasting office often see an old weather map on display. Dated 15 July 1909 and one of the oldest weather maps kept here, it is exactly 100 years old this year. China in 1909 was still in the Qing Dynasty.

Figure 1 - The July 15 1909 weather map.

Figure 1 -  The July 15 1909 weather map.

There are a number of weather observations plotted on the map. Except for the observation made at the Observatory itself, all other observations were received by telegraph. The observations were made at different times of the day. For instance, according to the China Coast Meteorological Register published by the Observatory, the observation at Guangzhou ( 'Canton' ) was made at 9 a.m., while that at Taibei/Taipei ( 'Taihoku' ) was made at 5 a.m. So were the telegraphs, some of which (e.g. those from Haikou ( 'Hoihow' )) reached Hong Kong "too late for forecasting purposes".

The observations were reported as follows: temperature in degrees Fahrenheit; humidity in percentages; air pressure in inches or millimeters of mercury; and wind --- direction in 16-point compass and plotted in the form of an arrow, and speed in Beaufort force and plotted in the form of barbs.

To bring out the weather pattern, isobars were drawn based on the air pressure values. Because air pressure varies with the time of day, the footnote on the map states "As the observations are not made simultaneously at all stations the isobars are adjusted accordingly." The pattern on the weather map revealed that a typhoon was affecting Hainan Island at the time.

If we look carefully at the map, we can see three weather observations over Hong Kong. One was made at the Observatory (which started operation since 1884), the other at Victoria Peak (since 1884) and the third at Gap Rock (since 1892), which was an outpost some 40 km to the southwest.

Figure 2 shows the places where observations were made, their present names, as well as their old names (in bracket) as appeared on the map.

Figure 2 : shows the places where observations were made, their present names, as well as their old names (in bracket) as appeared on the map.

Figure 2

Hong Kong Island was a British colony since 1842 after the First Opium War, while Kowloon where the Observatory is located was ceded in 1860 after the Second Opium War. Together with the New Territories to the north of Kowloon, which was leased in 1898, they were handed back to China in 1997. To the west of Hong Kong is Macao, a Portuguese enclave from the 16th century to 1999.

Although too faint to be discerned from Figure 1, other Chinese places on the map consist of 4 of the 5 treaty ports of Guangzhou ( 'Canton' ), Xiamen ( 'Amoy' ), Fuzhou (designated as 'Sharp Peak' on the map), Ningbo (not on map) and Shanghai, opened up as a result of the Treaty of Nanking (present-day Nanjing) in 1842. Also on the map were Yantai ( 'Chefoo' ), Jiujiang ( 'Kiukiang' ), Hankou ( 'Hankow' ), Shantou ( 'Swatow' ) and Haikou ( 'Hoihow' ), ports opened after the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858.

Co-ordination of a meteorological service at the ports was the work of Sir Robert Hart, who served as Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs of China from 1863 to the late 1900s. Dr. W. Doberck, the Observatory's first director, was instrumental in unifying the meteorological observations upon taking command of the Observatory in 1883.

On the map were two other Chinese places --- Taibei/Taipei and Hengchun ( 'Taihoku' and 'Koshun' respectively during Japanese occupation) in Taiwan, ceded to Japan after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895-1896 and returned to China after the Second World War in 1945.

On Figure 2's lower left, there are three Vietnamese places: Haiphong, Da Nang ( 'Tourane' during the French colonization) and 'C.S. James' near present-day Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam was part of the French Indochina from the late 19th century until 1954, with an interruption of a few years by Japanese invasion during the Second World War in the early 1940s.

On the lower middle, the Philippines under Spanish sovereignty was ceded to the United States in 1898. At the time of the weather map, the Philippine-American War was underway, lasting until 1913. The Manila Observatory was run by a Reverend Fr. Algue as the Director.

The above tell us that most if not all observations in 1909 were made by the Great Powers at the time or made in areas under their control. One can also appreciate how backward China was in those waning years of the Qing Dynasty. It was two years before the Chinese Revolution in 1911, in which Dr Sun Yat-sen, Father of the Nation, played an instrumental role in overthrowing the dynasty.

It was also 10 years before the May 4 Movement in 1919, whose 90th anniversary was commemorated nation-wide this year. With a broad popular foundation, the movement led to an upsurge in Chinese nationalism and, in the words of the late Taiwan scholar, Yan Hai-guang, to a widespread embrace of science and democracy by Chinese intellectuals.

B.Y. Lee


a) "Report of the Director of the Observatory", 1902-1909.
b) "From Time Ball to Atomic Clock" by Anthony Dyson, Hong Kong Government Publication, 1983.
c) "Weathering the Storm - Hong Kong Observatory and Social development" by Ho Pui-yin, 2003.
d) "Collection of Yan Hai-guang's papers on philosophical and cultural thoughts", University of Nanjing Press, 2008 (in Chinese).
e) Wikipedia.

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>