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  • An Old Friend from the Hong Kong Observatory

  • Monday, 30th November 2015

When I was young at Primary 3, my father retired from the Observatory and we moved from the upper room on the 4th floor of 47 Hillwood Road to a flat in Chatham Building of the Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants' Association at 424 Chatham Road, Hung Hom. In our new home, my father had kept his steel desk and placed it by the window. On the wall next to the desk, there was a square object measuring approximately 6 inches by 6 inches (Figure 1), made up of a wooden frame and two meters. I knew the rectangular meter on the right. People called it, in Cantonese, a "meter showing summer and winter", but its proper name was "thermometer". On either side of a very thin glass tube about four inches long, there were scales marked in degree Celsius and Fahrenheit. At that time, the British system was still in use in Hong Kong and the Observatory reported temperatures in Fahrenheit.

To the left of the thermometer was a larger meter with two "pointers" and some English words on it. Given the fact that I was in Primary 3 and "a man and a pen" pretty much summarised my English proficiency, I had no idea what this meter did.

Figure 1

Figure 1      Mr Heywood, former Observatory's Director, and his wife presented this home thermometer and barometer
as a retirement gift to Mr Lau Pak-wa, the father of Lau Tin-chi.

My father cherished this small piece of instrument that he had hung on the wall. I could not reach the bottom part of it even on tip toe, let alone mess with it. On a typical day, my father would not pay much attention to the instrument, but he would look at it closely during the typhoon season.

I realised that the pointers did not move like the hands of a clock. Normally the pointers stayed quiet, but when a "typhoon is coming", the pointer on the left would move downwards. While people in Hong Kong used to say "typhoon is coming!", fewer and fewer people use the expression in recent years. In the past when there was no air conditioning, people were much more sensitive to temperature changes. On a certain day, it was exceptionally hot and stuffy, even with electric fans and paper fans, and the breeze was hot even in open areas. After dark, there were flying termites everywhere; sometimes, even cockroaches flew, and everyone knew "typhoon is coming!".

In those days, typhoons were a big deal. People were particularly anxious, as if they were facing a formidable enemy. This was because even in concrete buildings, the windows mostly had wooden frames and it was crucial that precautionary measures were taken before a typhoon struck. Wooden windows were secured with ropes and the glass was taped, while window leaks were sealed. It was indeed a lot of work getting prepared for heavy rain or the typhoon. Meanwhile, it was worse for people living in unauthorized rooftop structures, close to a hill or on boats. Everyone hoped that Hong Kong would not be caught in the path of a typhoon, because if it was, homes might be destroyed and lives could be lost. Forty years later in Hong Kong today, people feel completely different about typhoons.

Before the arrival of the typhoon, my father would be busy looking at this small instrument. He would adjust the small silver pointer and observe how the other one moved. A few hours later, if the other pointer moved further downwards, he would announce with absolute certainly that, "the typhoon will hit!" As a kid, I did not understand all the fuss about typhoons. Although I would get an extra day off from school, I would be stuck at home and it was rather boring.

As I grew older, I learnt that the instrument was a barometer. Not requiring any batteries or other power sources, the "mechanics" inside senses the atmospheric pressure and causes the pointers to move. For details of the principle, you need to ask a scientific officer. After my father passed away, I had a good look at this "old friend" that had been in our family for decades. It was given to my father by the then Observatory's Director Mr Heywood and his wife. The names of the givers and receiver, along with the date of presentation, were inscribed on a small plate under the wooden frame. Our "old friend" had served our family since my father's retirement up till his passing, but after I became its owner, it was treated as an ornament on my desk because I did not know how to use it. Therefore, when I met Mr Shun, the current Director, and Ms Song, Senior Scientific Officer, and learned from them that there was a History Room in the Observatory, I offered to send this "old friend" that had been with our family for more than six decades to a place where its existence would be more meaningful (Figure 2). When members of the public visit the History Room, hopefully our "old friend" can show them what a home barometer in the past looks like.

Figure 2

Figure 2      Lau Tin-chi (right) donated his father's retirement gift, a thermometer and barometer, to the Observatory.
Mr Shun Chi-ming, the Director of the Hong Kong Observatory (left), received the instrument from him.

Figure 3

Figure 3      In the early 1950s, Lau Pak-wa (right), the father of Lau Tin-chi, worked in the Hong Kong Observatory.
This photograph shows him with the young Lau Tin-chi sitting on a stone pier at Hong Kong's first
survey station. Today, Lau Tin-chi (left) revisits the place, and he says the giant stone pier has
shrunk. (Photo courtesy of Apple Daily)

Mr Lau Tin-chi

Last revision date: <29 Jan 2016>