Out of Hong Kong: Tycoons fail to weather disaster that never was

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HELL HATH no fury like a Hongkonger denied the chance to make money. And with only five years to go before D-day, when the colony reverts to China, tempers are running high. So there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth last Wednesday when a typhoon signal was raised in the morning, closing down the stock exchange and the banks - particularly when it became clear by the evening that it had been a false alarm and the dreaded tropical storm Gary had turned left over the South China Sea.

'It was an over-reaction, a complete over-reaction,' thundered Brigadier Ian Christie, director of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. 'The cost to the economy must run into millions of dollars and it is quite unnecessary.' The final estimate of lost income to the colony was put at HKdollars 1.7bn ( pounds 117m). That is quite a few Rolls-Royces.

Particularly galled were those stockbrokers who braved the balmy weather with the odd shower to get into their offices and watch Hong Kong stocks fall on the London Stock Exchange. They sat mournfully at their computer screens, latter-day Midases with hands tied behind their back.

The typhoon number 8 signal was raised at 5.45am when the Royal Observatory determined that tropical storm Gary was growing in intensity and heading towards Hong Hong. Public transport was shut down, businesses were advised to close, and people at home were told to put adhesive tape over their windows. Throughout the morning, the weather reports on the radio gave increasingly strong warnings.

Apart from blown-in windows, the real dangers to Hong Kong if a typhoon hits are from rain- induced landslides in crowded residential areas, and falling flower pots and other detritus from the thousands of high-rise buildings. 'It sounded seriously serious,' said a friend who lives in a tall building on the island. She dutifully taped all her windows and cowered on her couch awaiting the worst. But by mid-afternoon the hysteria was replaced by embarrassment, as it became clear that the storm was not going to affect Hong Kong much at all. 'I felt a bit foolish afterwards,' said my friend. 'I quickly took all the tape down again.'

Others were more cynical. One local newspaper claimed the forecasting fiasco came about because the Royal Observatory deliberately issued the warning before people went to work, rather than risk shutting down the colony in the middle of a working day. The last time this was done - at lunchtime three years ago - one man was crushed to death in the panic as people rushed to get home in the midst of a storm.

In the good old days of sweatshop manufacturing in Hong Kong, said the paper, factory owners put strong pressure on the Royal Observatory not to raise the typhoon signal until the very last minute. But things have changed. 'There aren't really any manufacturers here any more. The labour force is mostly in China (in the southern China special economic zones) and nobody gives a renminbi (Chinese currency) about how those poor sods get back to their homes.' Clearly the well-heeled bankers and brokers in Hong Kong should not be allowed to get their Guccis spattered by inclement weather.

This is the beginning of the annual typhoon season in the South China Sea, but nature rarely vents its wrath on Hong Kong. By contrast, the poor Filipinos seem to get it in the neck every year with a string of typhoons and hurricanes. The last direct hit on Hong Kong was Typhoon Ellen in 1983, which merited the number 10 hurricane signal. Normally, even the weaker number 8 signal is not raised more than once or twice a year.

The Royal Observatory was quick to respond to charges that it had issued a warning too early. According to its own guidelines, a typhoon number 8 signal is raised when winds over 39mph are measured. On Wednesday morning, winds of 51mph were recorded. So, technically it had no choice. 'Of course we are not the best,' said Chan Yuk-kwan, the observatory's senior scientific officer. 'We could be better if we had better equipment.'

By Thursday morning, Hong Kong was back to the serious business of making money. Only the most demented of observers were prompted to wonder whether Typhoon China, predicted to hit on 1 July 1997, will not also prove to be a storm in a tea-cup.