Typhoon season is in full swing and Hong Kong already had some close calls with powerful typhoon Nida, which was nearly a direct hit, and Dianmu, a weaker storm that still delivered torrents of rain. Though Hong Kong rarely gets attacked by the eye of the storm, its location means it is often affected by storms passing through the Philippines, one of the most cyclonically active places on Earth.
Nobody enjoys the heavy showers and the havoc that comes with a typhoon warning, but let’s admit it – since the city is quite well-equipped to withstand a strong storm, everyone is a bit excited when the Hong Kong Observatory’s No. 8 signal is hoisted, because that means school is cancelled and worker bees get the day off.
The number 1 signal is raised whenever a typhoon is within 800 kilometres of Hong Kong. Although officially a typhoon signal is nowadays “issued,” we are used to saying a signal is “raised” or “hoisted,” because in the 1880s, different signals with drums, balls and cones were raised in Victoria Harbour to warn seamen of the impending storm. In fact, the term still used in Cantonese for typhoon signals is fung1 kau4 (風球) which literally means “wind ball.” Later, firing guns and cannons were also used to warn residents, with three shots indicating a very severe storm. By the 1960s there were 42 signal stations all around Hong Kong, even though they became increasingly superfluous as most residents mostly relied on radio and newspapers for information.
Any Cantonese speaker will tell you that typhoon comes from the word toi4 fung1 (颱風) but they would only be partially correct. This is a word that has etymologists huffing and puffing at each other: in a wonderful linguistic coincidence, several languages can lay claim to influencing the term. It was introduced to European languages by Portuguese sailors in the late 16th century, who talked about strong storms in Chinese waters that the locals called tufão. Some etymologists claim that this comes from the Cantonese term for “big wind” (daai6 fung1 大風) but others say that it comes from the term for wind from the east (dung1 fung1 東風) since the storms always approached from the easterly seas.
As the seas attracted a large mix of explorers and merchants at the time, others say that Portuguese sailors instead got the term from Arabic mariners who refer to big cyclonic storms as tufan. The word in Persian and Hindi for cyclonic storm is also tufan. Purists of ancient languages cite the Greek term for giant whirlwind – tuphon or typhon as being the father of typhoon.
How did all these languages end up referring to cyclonic storms to some extent or another as a “typhoon”? One argument that skews in favour of a Chinese origin is that typhoon only refers to cyclonic storms in the China seas, the East Indies and the western Pacific. Cyclonic storms that occur in the eastern Pacific and the Atlantic are called hurricanes, while southern Pacific and Indian Ocean storms are labelled cyclones. So the typhoon’s origin must be surely local – right?
The Hong Kong Observatory has forecasted that about five to seven typhoons will affect the city this season, so as you huddle down at home for the next one and watch the tall buildings sway in the strong winds — as they were engineered to do — remember that this is another term that Cantonese gifted to the world, swirling around for centuries in the giant linguistic melting pot of the South China Sea.
To know more about typhoons in Hong Kong, visit the exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum
In the Midst of a Storm: Hong Kong’s Early Typhoons – Finishes on September 25, 2016
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.