The bell of the former Kowloon Terminus Clock Tower is turning one hundred years old—but most of us have never heard it chime. That’s because the bell stopped ringing in 1950, after only 29 years of use. The story behind this quirk is the focus of a new exhibition that runs until December 24.
Located in the Foyer Exhibition Area of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Centenary of The Bell – Resonance of Time describes the whole life span of the bell. It begins with its casting in 1919 by John Taylor & Company, a bell foundry in the British town of Loughborough, to its current status as an exhibition piece, sitting inside the bell tower on the ground floor, atop a rack of railway sleepers from the former Kowloon-Canton Railway, where it has been housed since 2010.
The bell arrived in Hong Kong a little late: the tower itself was ready and open in 1915, and for six years a series of delays meant that it was a clock tower without a bell. Then, in 1920, the bell, weighing one tonne, finally reached Hong Kong, but there was an initial problem in locating the operating manual. Finally, after sorting out all the technicalities, the bell was installed in its place and made to chime on the hour, as the four clocks on each side of the clock tower marked the hour in unison.
This did not go on for very long, however. The bell stopped once, from 1941 to 1945, when Hong Kong was under Japanese occupation during World War II, and everything—even timekeeping—was in chaos. The clock tower and the terminus was coloured a camouflage grey, and no chiming was allowed. After the war ended and normality was again restored, the paint was stripped off to reveal the original red brick and grey stone façade. The bell once again started ringing on the hour.
That is, until 1950, when everything changed again as more technical difficulties arose. The four clocks were powered by separate motors, which unfortunately produced a small time difference among them. In order to avoid the odd discrepancy, with the bell chiming when one clock or the other was not yet on the hour, or had just moved past it, the whole thing was discontinued, and just like that the hour bell was set aside.
For a while it remained inside the tower, useless. Then it was moved to Hung Hom, where it sat in the atrium of the new Kowloon Terminus that was built when the waterfront one was slated for demolition. Despite huge public opposition, the building was torn down in 1978, but the clock tower was left intact. It was declared a protected monument in 1990, one year after the completion of the Cultural Centre that sits behind it. Eventually, the bell was moved back to the clock tower from Hung Hom.
It has remained silent since then. That is, except for one day, from December 9 to December 10, when the exhibition in the Cultural Centre opened and the bell was made to chime again – a momentary echo of the past in a city where history is all too often forgotten.
Photos in slider: courtesy of Christopher DeWolf, Kevin Mak