Digest>Archives> October 2004

A Jewel in the South China Sea

By Dan Waters


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Ships that pass in the night, and speak [to] each other in passing:

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Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness:

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So on the ocean of life we pass and speak [to] one another,

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Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On some days on Waglan Island, a restricted zone three miles south of Hong Kong Island, it can be idyllic, a not-to-be-forgotten experience. Terrance Courtney, Superintendent of Lights in the 1950s and 1960s, used to spend the night there, because he found it enchanting. But the helipad constructed in 1982 destroyed much of the romance. No relatives or friends of keepers were allowed to visit although there was a visitors' book for the few VIPs who went there.

But not everything is tranquil all the time. The fury of the sea at this spot during typhoons is notorious. In 1896, the fresh-water tanks were flooded and spray reached the lantern of the lighthouse – which is 225-feet above sea level – pelting the panes with sand and gravel. During Typhoon Ruby in 1964, gusts reached 143 miles an hour. Try to imagine what the heat was like in the lighthouse with windows that do not open, even if the Number Ten typhoon signal had been hoisted, indicating a probable direct hit. It was not until the 1970s that the lighthouse watchtower was air-conditioned for these conditions.

Waglan Lighthouse, with its 52-feet high cast-iron watchtower, was constructed by a Paris company for the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. It started to operate, with German keepers, in 1893. That is the date on the bell. Waglan Lighthouse came under the control of Britain in 1901, following the lease of the New Territories and Outlying Islands to Britain in 1898. Hong Kong, together with Waglan, was returned to China in 1997.

Cannons were originally installed on the island and, in addition to Marine Department staff, British soldiers were stationed on Waglan. A squad of Japanese soldiers were stationed there during the Second World War. One Japanese soldier was buried there and it is said that there are two Japanese ghosts haunting the island although details are sketchy.

Creatures of Comfort and Sustenance

Shortly after the First World War, keepers were said to have spent one month at a stretch on Waglan followed by one week's leave. This was later changed to one month on duty and two week's off. But in the years leading up to 1989, when the lighthouse was automated and no longer manned, it was one-week on the island and one-week off.

There are no wells or springs so the staff depended on rainwater which drained off roofs and paved areas. A plan was drawn up for the water to be stored in underground tanks. On one occasion, a tradesman who had gone to the island to carry out repairs was caught in the nick of time as he was about to relieve himself into a gulley. During droughts, water was shipped in by tanker. Salt water was used for flushing toilets.

In earlier years, the larder would be stocked up to last a full tour of duty but after a day or so, food was no longer fresh. In more recent years, refrigerators were installed. Staples were different kinds of noodles, meat, vegetables and fish. The latter was supplemented by fresh fish which keepers caught themselves by line or cage. Little food was wasted. The half dozen or so cats polished off leftovers.

Staff with “green thumbs” grew vegetables and brought flowers and shrubs back to the island to plant. A large bed of red-leafed flowers, grown in the shape of “WI”, stood for Waglan Island. As Yip Kin-sang, Superintendent of Lights, phrased it “There was a strong sense of belonging.”

Being cooped up on a half-mile long, steep, precipitous, hummock of a rock meant there were limitations regarding exercise. Several keepers did not bother. One said, “I used to climb up the 224 steps that lead from the pier to the top of the Island.” Others practised Chinese martial arts or swam.

Certainly man cannot live by rice alone and provision had to be made for recreation and welfare. In the early 20th century this was limited. But in the 1980s colour television, stereo music, radio, a small library, darts, ping pong and mahjong were all available in an air-conditioned recreation room.

Little vegetation grows near the crest of them island. There are a few plants and flowers, however, such as Chinese Hibiscus – sometimes known as the “rose of China.” When I visited the Island with the Royal Asiatic Society in 1990, there was a colony of red-rumpted swallows nesting in the cliffs but I did not spot these on subsequent visits. There is usually the odd black-eared kite and a few swifts circling in the sky.

Near the end of the small, straggling island, is a cavern that goes right through the island. There you can see two very large rocks. Using a little imagination these seem to be leaning over “kissing.” Yes, there is still some romance left at Waglan.

The Men Who Manned Waglan

What about the men who manned Waglan Lighthouse? What sort of people were they? The late Allan Lack previously of Hong Kong Marine Department told me:

“I am sorry I cannot tell you much about the life of the keepers. If you have not been able to question Charlie Thirlwell [and people like him] then it is likely their stories have gone forever. Sad, but many stories are already lost.”

The good news however is that, over half a century, I have been able to question, off and on, lighthouse keepers and Marine Department staff as well as making visits to lighthouses.

After the British took over Waglan, in 1901, it became the practice for Hong Kong's Lighthouses to be manned by Eurasians, in the same way that railways in (British) India used to be staffed largely by Anglo-Indians. Keepers in Hong Kong frequently had British military fathers and Chinese mothers. Government staff lists in the 1950s and 1960s usually show that keepers had English names. But they were mostly Eurasians. Servicemen sometimes took their discharge in the Crown Colony. The job of a keeper requires a reasonable amount of intelligence, integrity, attention to detail, personal discipline, self-sufficiency and the ability to be able to live communally. For Eurasians, lighthouse keeping became a tradition. They took pride in their jobs.

Eurasian keepers are still talked about by those of us who remember them. Their eccentricities (if they may be called that) of some of the old-timers are still recalled with affection. When on shore leave, the Brown brothers, Henry and Richard, would go off fishing. Marine Department staff would say that, after working on an isolated island, the “hubbub” among the family at home was just too much to bear. Their grandfather was a Danish mariner named Bruhn, although it is not known when the family changed its name to the English “Brown.” Because they were of Danish stock, they were not interned by the Japanese during the Second World War. Most family members have long emigrated to Britain, Canada or Australia.

Henry, born in 1898, was a big man in every sense. On shore leave he liked double-breasted suits and bow ties. He enjoyed parties, telling jokes and drinking with friends. He made up for his time at Waglan when he was on shore leave. Richard, born in 1896, who had lost fingers in an accident, was the quiet one. They both liked shooting and fishing. They used to tell the tale of how at Waglan, when the weather was bad and the boat could not berth, they had to be hauled up on to the island from the boat in a basket.

Another colourful character who served as a lighthouse keeper starting in 1937 was Charles Beatty Allenby Haig Thirlwell. With three of his four given names taken from two famous British generals and an admiral, he must have had a very patriotic British father. He also led an active life when on shore leave, which included community service. He had close connections with fisher folk and boat people. His wife, in fact, was one of them. I agree with a friend who said:

“Thirlwell was a nice, cheerful man and, yes, he sang very well.”

He not infrequently sang stylized Cantonese opera with correct tones and expressions. He even sang lusty boat people songs which were beyond the capabilities of most native Cantonese. This surprised many who did not know his background. On first meeting him, he could easily be taken for a full-blooded European. In fact, he was a Hong Kong-born and bred Eurasian and he started learning the local dialect while still a child. Surprisingly, he spoke English with an English north-country accent. Did he pick this up from his English father?

Another retired English Hong Kong government servant said:

“Yes, he was a jolly man, humorous, well thought of and one of those people who seemed to know everyone. He enjoyed a glass of beer.”

Deservedly, for his work as a loyal lighthouse keeper, coupled with other government service and community service, he was awarded an MBE (Medal of the British Empire) in 1971 by the Queen. Towards the end of his government service, he was also awarded a Merit Trip to England. But after five days, he requested permission to return to Hong Kong. He had difficulty in adjusting to life in Britain which was rather different to colonial Hong Kong of the 1970s and absolutely different to being stationed at Waglan.

Sydney Frank Bamsey was another Eurasian lighthouse keeper who, in 1955, occasionally dropped into my home for a cup of coffee. He used to smile and say, “I shall leave my bones in Hong Kong.” At the time, I did not fully appreciate what he had in mind but in his will he requested permission from the Government to be buried on Waglan Island where he had spent countless peaceful hours as a lighthouse keeper. He had deep affection for “The Rock.” When the last trumpet call sounded, Bamsey's ashes were interred there in a small garden.

His Malaysian Chinese wife visited his grave at Chinese festivals for the dead but, after the lighthouse was no longer manned in 1989, with boats no longer going there on a regular basis, it was not so easy to visit his grave. Bamsey's remains were then exhumed and moved elsewhere. I recall the grave on Waglan but what was a lovely spot is now overgrown.

Although for most of the colonial years lighthouse keepers were Eurasians, in 1956 three Chinese men joined the lighthouse service. In the run up to automation of lighthouses and as localisation took effect, by the 1980s all such posts were filled by Chinese. How does Lai Tak-wah, who had previously been to sea as a radio operator, remember his 10 years spent as a keeper at Waglan?

“It was all right for someone who enjoyed a peaceful existence. But separated from one's family out at Waglan, life was boring. A week out there at a stretch was too long.”

How would he have felt, one wonders, when between the two World Wars keepers did a month on “The Rock” at a stretch? But he said that, for three to four years while on Waglan, he studied for his telecommunications examinations.

The sentiments regarding boredom were echoed by Lai Kwok-keung. On being interviewed when Waglan was being changed over to automation he said, as he lowered the British flag for the last time. “I'm not sad to leave.” Such remarks contrast with those of Bamsey, and other “Old Salts” like him who were happier “afloat” than when on shore leave.

For a time after automation, Waglan retained some of its “original glory.” But after the changeover it became rather run-down. What had been lovely flowerbeds became overgrown. When it was manned, there was that special feeling of it being inhabited. That was when a small group of buildings and its contents were “loved” and treasured just as a fastidious housewife cares for her home. Without a human presence, a lighthouse is dead. In 1989, with Waglan Lighthouse automated, an era had ended.

But those of us who still remember them talk of past lighthouse keepers as a “wonderful group of special people.” Stories have been handed down mainly by word-of-mouth. There was a kind of mythology and history belonging especially to them.

This story appeared in the October 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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