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How constructing climate shaped Hong Kong

Cole Roskam

Weather prediction became an important part of colonial rule in Hong Kong. This study of the developing design priorities of the buildings that enabled that was shortlisted in the President’s Awards for Research

The Hong Kong Observatory in Kowloon was completed in 1884, here seen in 1951.
The Hong Kong Observatory in Kowloon was completed in 1884, here seen in 1951. Credit: Hong Kong Observatory HKSAR

In what ways do buildings engage in moments of social, economic, and political change? It’s a question that may seem particularly relevant and urgent today; it also forms the basis of my continuing research into the history of Hong Kong’s built environment. A look back through the city’s development reveals numerous and recurring periods of physical, environmental, financial, geopolitical, and viral destabilisation. I’m particularly interested in how these disturbances may have shaped architectural and urban design, practice and discourse, as well as the extent to which architecture itself contributed to them.

It was through this research that I began to study the history of weather observation in colonial-era Hong Kong and the spaces designed to produce meteorological knowledge about the port and its environs. Meteorological observation was an important science in late-19th century colonial Hong Kong – one that contributed to the port’s social life, economic activity, and governance. Much of this data collection took place in and around observatories, which were physical sites composed of buildings, instruments, and terrain designed to capture atmospheric and meteorological data over time. There’s relatively little architectural historical study of these buildings in relation to Hong Kong or elsewhere. I focused on addressing this gap.

The Hong Kong Observatory forms the key case study of my research. Its design and construction was initiated in 1879 partly at the behest of the London-based Meteorological Society and it was eventually completed in 1883. The observatory was accompanied by the construction of a time ball tower along the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui. These, and a series of smaller weather monitoring stations throughout the colony, produced and communicated more complete and accurate weather information that formed the basis of a broader ‘construction’ of Hong Kong’s climate—a term used by observatory director William J Doberck to describe the documentation, organisation, and translation of meteorological information into an ordered form of knowledge. Such knowledge enabled British officials to warn residents of the anticipated arrival of inclement weather, particularly typhoons; it also allowed merchants to chart and schedule their shipping routes and times more accurately.

  • The Time Ball and Tower at Tsim Sha Tsui which was used to communicate time and weather to ships anchored in the harbour.
    The Time Ball and Tower at Tsim Sha Tsui which was used to communicate time and weather to ships anchored in the harbour. Credit: Mr. Shun Chi-ming and
  • Aftermath of the typhoon 1874, Hong Kong.
    Aftermath of the typhoon 1874, Hong Kong. Credit: Lai Afong, Hong Kong

The facility’s history revealed localised tensions and controversies surrounding the collection of such data. For example, there existed significant ambivalence on the part of the colony’s early British settlers, due in part to doubt over the colony’s long-term survival and chronic budget problems. Debate over the observatory’s value also stemmed from British residents’ relative security from violent tropical storms as compared to the colony’s predominant Chinese residents, many of whom lived either on boats or within vulnerable proximity to the shore. I came to see meteorology and its architecture as entwined within a much broader tangle of socioeconomic and racial complexities than I had initially understood.

In the end, British merchants and colonial officials acknowledged that a reliable, centralised system of timekeeping and weather data within the colony would help improve people’s lives but, more specifically, that it would be beneficial to the port’s trade. By 1912, the Hong Kong Observatory had been recognised by Britain as a Royal Observatory, officially embedding it within Britain’s larger imperial sphere. In this respect, the observatory proved essential to reinforcing and rationalising Great Britain’s claims of colonial authority and control over Chinese territory, and, more generally, over environments throughout the British Empire. Yet the exchange of meteorological knowledge between Hong Kong and other observatories around the world also helped to position the port within numerous inter-imperial networks spanning Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, and North America, thereby complicating our impressions of the rivalries and tensions at work between, for example, France and Britain.

At the same time, the observatory should be considered more than simply a physical monument to British imperialism. The Hong Kong Observatory was consequential to changing notions of how architecture could contribute to the governance of the colony. Over the course of the early 20th century, questions concerning architectural style, which had historically provided representational links to the metropole and its global network, gave way to architectural considerations of technical performance. Climate data was a complex and multidimensional resource that contributed to this shift, and the observatory’s ability to document and index such information made it a new and active expression of civic design and colonial authority.

The historical interactivity between environmental science and the built environment at work in the Hong Kong Observatory remains significant today, not only because it productively blurs distinctions between so-called ‘human’ and ‘natural’ histories, but because it illuminates the power dynamics at work in such entanglement. It also reveals architecture to be a useful conceptual scaffolding within which our understanding of humankind’s relationship to climate, and the world at large, may be reconsidered.

Cole Roskam is associate professor, department of architecture, University of Hong Kong

Constructing Climate: The Hong Kong Observatory and Meteorological Networks within the British Imperial Sphere, 1842 – 1912 by Cole Roskam was shortlisted for the President’s Awards for Research

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