31 January 2013

Groundhogs and Englishmen

While I’m settling in Hong Kong and figuring out who the best butcher, baker, and martini maker are, I’m also playing the tourist.  My first taste as sightseer came while running errands in Causeway Bay.  I went to see the firing of the Noonday Gun.  The tradition has lasted in roughly the same spot since the Opium Wars and I was aiming to find out why.

Even though Hong Kong is now a special territory of the People’s Republic of China, the city still fires a daily report. The midday blast was made famous when The Queen of England, Noel Coward, wrote about it in the song Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
In Hong Kong
They strike a gong
And fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who’s in late

As poetic as it sounds, the purpose was for punishment and not as a warning for tardy soldiers.  In 1832 two Scots, William Jardine and James Matheson, founded the trading house Jardine Matheson. Jardines, as it was referred, imported opium to the Chinese and exported cotton to the British.  Their offices were located at East Point in Victoria Harbor.  To announce visiting business leaders or company big wigs (tai pans), Jardines’ private militia would fire a cannon. In 1860 things got out of hand when a business executive was announced with a 21-gun salute.  Fresh from the Opium Wars, the British navy remained in full force.  A naval officer didn’t appreciate a businessman receiving the same honor normally reserved for senior officers or government dignitaries.  Jardines’ punishment for this breech of colonial etiquette was to fire a cannon every day at the stroke of noon. 

Given the Noonday Gun’s history and its listings in tourist guides, I decided to go early to get a good seat.  When I arrived I was the only one there and there were no seats.  As the hour approached people began to trickle in and stand with me behind locked gates: a few construction workers from a nearby site, a Mainland couple on holiday, a family of 3, and a pack of 5 teens who seemed to me to be on a school assignment with their pens and notebooks in hand.  A small man in a naval-inspired uniform came striding in.  He rang a bell three times and then walked up on the cannon platform.  He stood tall and proud, extended his left arm in the air, and lowered it as he fired The Hotchkiss Mark I three-pound cannon with his right hand.  The report gave us all a jolt and we gasped like we were watching fireworks.  It was louder than anticipated – two busy construction sites and honking 6-lane traffic surrounded us.  The guard walked off the platform, rang the bell again, and then opened the gates.  For thirty minutes we were allowed inside the grounds.  He shouted something I didn’t understand and we all exited the yard.  The experience left me wondering why it inspired song.

Except for the Japanese occupation during World War II, the Noonday Gun has been signaling high noon everyday for over a hundred years.  Hong Kong isn’t the only city calmly carrying on with colonial British tradition. Cape of Good Hope has a Noon Gun. The British captured the Dutch colony in 1795 and Signal Hill has been blasting since 1806.  The city began firing a cannon to announce incoming ships.  As time progressed, it was reduced to once a day. Cape of Good Hope remained a colony until 1910, but the tradition continues today.

In this day in age, why continue firing a cannon at noon? I don’t know about Cape of Good Hope, but in Hong Kong land is at a premium. The Jardines property remains with its patch of grass and a few cannons. Why blast midday when it isn’t loud enough to hear island-wide?  It makes sense if people need to set watches, but a majority of the population use their phones to tell time and a satellite in space sets those. Maybe if more people attended the ceremony I’d "get" it, but I'm at a loss at this point.

Then again, who am I to question other countries’ traditions?   Back home in America we gage the length of winter from a hedgehog named Punxsutawney Phil.

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