Story of Waglan
Kwan Koon-Wah and Poon Lai-Shun - Friends of the Observatory
Frequently mentioned in local weather reports, Waglan seems to many familiar but mysterious. All because this tiny island is located in a restricted zone over the remote southeast of Hong Kong waters. In August 2010, a group of more than ten voluntary docents of "Friends of the Observatory", with the Observatory's guidance, went on to a study trip to Waglan. The aim is to gain a better understanding of instruments and geographical settings of the weather station on the island, and of the difficulties encountered by the maintenance team and by the personnel who worked round-the-clock on the island decades ago. Let's listen to what two of the docents have to say.
Waglan, situated over the southeastern waters of Hong Kong, is a relatively large member among the Po Toi family of islands. It actually consists of two islands separated by a mere 10 metres --- Waglan Tau (head) in the north, and Waglan Mei (tail) in the south. Buffeted by rough seas and high winds, and with a hilly terrain and lack of fresh water supply, the island was uninhabitable before the establishment of the lighthouse at Waglan Mei.
The famous "Waglan Lighthouse" was built in late 19th Century and managed by the China Customs until 1901 when the Marine Department of Hong Kong took over the operation. Meteorological observations on the island began in 1952 when Observatory personnel, known as "computers", were stationed at Waglan. In 1964, the task of maintaining the meteorological register of the island was handed over to Marine Department staff. Weather observation was fully automated in 1989, putting an end to meteorological work done by personnel on the island.
The remoteness of Waglan Island makes it not easily accessible all these years. For instance, transportation by barge, the only means to and from Waglan in the past, was scheduled once every two weeks. For our study trip, a fast boat was available, but the bumpy ride still took half an hour. It is conceivable that the journey was even more arduous back then.
Inconvenient transportation means that in the older days, the supply of food and resources was limited. Fishing and farming were relied upon as source of nutrition. In 1970s, facilities including a heliport, an electricity generator house, quarters, a pier and a trolley rail connecting the pier to the knoll were built. Air-conditioning and refrigeration was also provided. Although these facilities did improve the living conditions there, the island never has tap water. People on the island had to rely on rainwater collected from the rooftop and the ground surface, as evident from the building structures that still remained.
Nowadays, the automatic lighthouse and the automatic weather station (AWS) clearly strike as something modern. While the former is used as a navigation aid, the latter measures the weather, which is important in ensuring southeastern Hong Kong is covered round-the-clock. The equipment set up by the Observatory at the AWS includes a visibility meter, a screen box, thermometers, a raingauge, wind vanes and anemometers.
Although Waglan Island is now unmanned, we can still feel how people worked and lived in the old days. Most of the buildings are dilapidated and become part of the history. These buildings look 'weather-beaten', a true reflection of the toil and hardship of those who worked there. One can also imagine the courage and perseverance that was demanded of them. Fortunately for many of us, modernization means that manning is no longer required; so is the struggle with nature.
We have briefly covered some aspects of Waglan made possible by the trip. The trip enabled us to know more about Waglan, though it is never enough. It will be the 50th anniversary of meteorological observation on Waglan next year. The long period of time signifies Waglan's importance to public safety in Hong Kong. Our curiosity about Waglan does not stop here. To us, it remains mysterious, desolate, but beautiful.