The seafaring world has a way of giving us evocative visual icons: the full-rigged ship running before the wind; an anchor holding fast in shifting currents; compass bearings to guide us home after a long journey. But none are quite as powerful as the lighthouse. It alone speaks as powerfully to the landlubber as to the seaman.
Lighthouses are the sentries that guard the realms of men, demarking the border between light and dark: the insular life ashore and the danger and promise of a masterless ocean. Here the green, gentle and docile world we know yields to all the horrors of the half-known life.
It was only natural, therefore, that these structures became a place of exile for Hong Kong’s perennial border-dwellers – Eurasians who knew both the Chinese and European worlds yet were not welcome in either. For generations, they kept burning the fires that lit up our shorelines, helping keep mariners safe and assuring Hong Kong’s success as a great port.
Today Hong Kong has some of the world’s best-lit waters, with over 540 lights and lighted buoys as aids to navigation. But it was a latecomer to the world of lighthouses. Although the government had identified early on three sites on which to illuminate the main approaches to Victoria Harbour — Gap Rock, Wagland Island and Great Lema — all at the time were outside the colony’s territorial waters. At any rate, scepticism over the island settlement’s prospects was rife.
Then, in 1869, something changed. Half a world away in Egypt, the opening of the Suez Canal offered Hong Kong the opportunity to transform itself from a regional entrepot for South China to a global shipping hub. To raise to the occasion, Hong Kong needed lighthouses. With renewed urgency, the colonial administration decided to make do with their “Plan B” sites located either on Hong Kong Island itself or its dependencies: Cape D’Aguilar, Cape Collinson and Green Island. The later two were lit in 1875, with Cape Collinson delayed a year due a mishap that saw it’s equipment erroneously shipped to the Cape of Good Hope instead.
Much ink has been spit over how lighthouses symbolise the best instincts of mankind: improbable structures whose sole purpose to guide, to give hope, and to save. In the Middle Ages navigation lights were often kept by monks or nuns who expected their efforts to be rewarded by the almighty. St. Catherine’s Lighthouse on the Isle of Wight was erected to save the soul of a local noble who had pilfered monastic wine from a French shipwreck. But as ever in Hong Kong, money was more of an imperative than mysticism or morality. To capitalise on the uptick in trade promised by the canal and steam shipping, they had to lower the cost of insuring vessels bound for its waters. Lighthouses were a smart investment.
Both Gap Rock and Waglan lighthouses were eventually built as well, in 1892 and 1893 respectively. The former was the result of an Anglo-Chinese agreement that saw Britain construct and manage the light but not take over the island itself. The latter was the work of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, a multinational Qing government agency staffed at the senior level by foreigners and then helmed by Irishman Sir Robert Hart.
After the colonial government took over Waglan Island in 1901 as part of the New Territories lease, it became common practice for the lighthouse to be manned by Eurasians, typically the children of British military fathers and local Chinese mothers, according to the late Dan Waters, former president of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch. “Lighthouse keepership had become a kind of Eurasian tradition,” a Marine Department official once told the Waters. “They had developed the expertise and took pride in this.”
Waters’ research into the subject turned up a catalogue of interesting characters like Eurasian lighthouse keeper Charles Beatty Allenby Haig Thirlwell. Despite his European appearance and intensely patriotic English name — three of his four names were taken from famous British military men — Thirlwell was a leading member of the Chai Wan fishermen community, famous for both his community service ashore and his stirring renditions of lusty boat-people songs. Isolation has a habit of breeding eccentricity, and the history of Hong Kong’s lightousekeepers is as colourful as any.
Maritime historian Stephen Davies says it is difficult to ascertain just how many of Hong Kong’s lighthouse keepers were Eurasian. Government records do not record ethnicity and they usually had European names. But the experience is in keeping with other outposts of empire in Asia. “Interestingly, the main staff of the lighthouses run out of Malacca were also Eurasian – Luso-Malays,” says Davies. In a similar way, mixed Anglo-Indians formed the backbone of the subcontinent’s vast railway network and coalesced into distinctive colonial railway towns.
According to Davies, Eurasians’ perennial presence in Hong Kong’s lighthouses was never a matter of deliberate government policy. Instead, it grew organically over the course of the twentieth century, peaking the postwar years before the process of localisation saw both European and Eurasian lighthouse staff replaced with ethnic Chinese locals.
None of Hong Kong’s lighthouses are as isolated and wave-swept as the lonely lights of Bell Rock off Scotland or Alaska’s Scotch Cap. Gap Rock, the farthest flung, was never relit after being extinguished in 1941 to impede the Japanese advance, allowed to simply fall into disrepair by the new Communist regime and its disinterest in international maritime trade.
The closest Hong Kong got to the romantic lighthouse ideal was at Waglan Island, the most distant of the Po Toi islands southeast of Hong Kong. Affectionately known as the Rock, Waglan eventually become home to a weather observation and RAF direction station, making the rigged spine of rocks strewn across the South China Sea “almost a village,” says Davies. Lighthouse keepers and their assistants had to spend a month on duty before getting one week’s shore leave. In later years, the arrangement was changed to one month on duty and two weeks’ reprieve, and then finally one week on, one week off.
In 1929 the steamship Hsin Wah ran aground on Waglan’s northern rocks during a gale. The captain freed her from the rocks by going astern, but would have done better to drive the ship back onto the rocks and ground her. An hour later, the SS Hsin Wah went down suddenly in deep water, taking 340 lives down with her. Just one lifeboat was launched in time, but it capsized in the heavy seas. Twenty survivors were picked up by fishermen.
It is not the ghosts of the SS Hsin Wah that are reputed to haunt Waglan, however. That dubious honour, according to Waters’ research, belongs to two Japanese soldiers killed by American bombers while they were stationed there in the Second World War. One was buried under the floor of what become the recreation room. Waters recalls another Marine Department official telling him, “It’s no wonder keepers saw ghosts on Waglan, cut off from their families as they were. It was a psychological thing.”
The last lighthouse keeper in Hong Kong left Waglan Island behind on a cold November day in 1989. Since then, all of the territory’s lights have been automated. In an age of pinpoint satellite navigation, lighthouses have become redundant – but far from useless. No system is faultless, and in matters of life and death redundancies are always welcomed. In spite of all the sophisticated technology at their chart tables, there isn’t captain in the world who isn’t comforted by the sight of a lighthouse calling out from across the water and across time.
As well as telling passing mariners where in the world they were, Hong Kong’s lighthouses also told the Eurasians who tended to the flames within where they were in their own society. But sometimes the edge of the world isn’t all about tragedy, lost love, haunted towers and cold, watery graves. For the many who found their calling in the lantern room, it was home.