On the 9th of May Hong Kong branch were fortunate to be able to visit Waglan Island lighthouse with the permission and assistance of Marine Department.
Visits are rare because the island is a restricted area, but such is the fame and significance of the lighthouse among professional mariners that permission was granted and three staff members from Mardep’s Aids to Navigation Unit agreed to conduct the visit. Perhaps it is a testament to the enduring appeal of lighthouses that Mr. Simon SW Mak, Mr. FT Leung and Mr. YK Leung all gave up their free time to guide us and explain the history of the island. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and made it a truly memorable trip.
Many mariners will recall making landfall here and passing the light on their way into one of the most exciting ports in the world, so the visit had great significance for the 30 members and guests who assembled in Causeway Bay and boarded the Swire junk for the one-hour voyage to Waglan.
The date of our visit was significant because, by happy coincidence, the lighthouse commenced operation on the 9th of May 1893. For any man-made structure in Hong Kong to last 116 years is remarkable, and Waglan Island lighthouse is one of only five in the territory which survive from before the Second World War.
The need for lights along the coast was recognised as trade expanded in the nineteenth century, and with the Suez Canal due to open in 1869 government appointed a naval surveyor, Commander Reed, to investigate suitable locations in the port approaches. In 1867 he recommended Waglan Island, which overlooks the south-eastern approaches, and Gap Rock to the south of Hong Kong Island, which covered the route to Singapore. Unfortunately, neither location was within Hong Kong waters at the time, so Commander Reed’s suggestions were not pursued and Hong Kong’s first lighthouse was built at Cape d’Aguilar in 1875.
Twenty years later the proposal was revived, and the Chinese authorities were approached for assistance. Approval was granted, and Waglan Lighthouse was built by the Light Department of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs.
It became one of the first two lights in Asia to employ the latest mercury rotation technology. Burning mineral oil, the light ‘floated’ on a bath of mercury which eliminated friction and permitted rotation as often as once every fifteen seconds. This technique, invented in 1890, allowed lighthouses to be identified by the pattern of light flashes they produced - a system which remains in use today.
The lighthouse was run by the Chinese Maritime Customs from Shanghai until the lease of the New Territories in 1898. It was officially handed over to the control of the Hong Kong government on the 1st of January 1901.
Approaching from Lei Yue Mun, Waglan does not look particularly inspiring, even on a glorious spring day with a lively breeze. It is the smallest of the Po Toi Islands and rises only about 70 metres above sea level in an irregular hump, with a line of low, rocky terrain stretching to the north. The light tower, at only 16 metres high, does not dominate the scene in broad daylight in quite the same way as the light dominates the approaches at night. It is only when you step ashore that the magic begins to take effect.
The steep footpath up to the light soon opens up stunning views towards the north. It also passes a small structure which looks like a traditional Chinese tomb but was actually the island’s incinerator.
After only a short walk past old fuel and water tanks, we reached the lighthouse compound itself, which houses an automatic weather station, VTC radar tower and microwave link as well as the lighthouse. None of the modern technology has the appeal of the lighthouse, though, which immediately draws the eye with its immaculate red and white livery.
Inside, it is a delight. The bolted cast iron sections show no signs of wear, and a cast iron staircase leads up around the curving sides of the tower past occasional brass portholes towards the light. The views from the top are truly spectacular, although the heat from the lamps is enough to remind the visitor of the true purpose of the tower. The intensity of the light is over one million candelas, and its signature two flashes every 20 seconds can be seen at a range of 26 nautical miles.
The lighthouse was gazetted as an historical building under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance on the 29th of December 2000.
Sadly, the surrounding buildings which once housed the keepers and the machinery are not protected. The island was extensively damaged by bombing during the war and most of the buildings were reconstructed after 1945. Since 1989 the light has been fully automated and the houses abandoned to the elements. They have not fared well and are now in a sad state of decay. This is a tragedy, because they lie along the spine of the island and offer incredible views in all directions. Whilst the houses may not have been luxurious, they appear to have been comfortable and some interesting period features remain. A machine shed houses the remains of three enormous generators, and the winch which drew the trolley up from the jetty still has the hoisting wire attached.
The site is an obvious candidate for renovation and preservation. The views alone would make it worthwhile, but the history of the site gives it an added importance.
Following a fascinating couple of hours on the island we boarded the junk once again and headed for Poi Toi Island, where we enjoyed an excellent seafood lunch before returning to Causeway Bay.
The life of a lighthouse keeper
Before 1956, Waglan was always manned by non-Chinese lighthouse keepers. At least one of them loved the island so much that he was buried there, although accounts suggest his remains were later removed at the request of his family.
Whilst the beauty of the location is undeniable, it was a hard life which would not appeal to everyone. Nonetheless, the first three Chinese lighthouse keepers, who were recruited in 1956, all remained in their posts until they retired. This is probably just as well, because it was never easy to recruit new keepers.
Lighthouse crews were on duty for a period of four weeks at a time, and the only communication with the shore was the boat which called every two weeks (weather permitting) to change half the crew and deliver supplies. The only amusements were fishing, swimming and gardening, with fresh fish and vegetables being essential to supplement the dried provisions sent out from the shore. At the end of the 1960s cooking was still being done with coal or driftwood, although by this time two kerosene refrigerators allowed meat to be stored for a limited period. There is no sign of the vegetable gardens today, but a number of flowering shrubs and bushes around the houses indicate that an attempt was made to brighten the surroundings.
Electricity was available whenever the light was operating, but in those days it was extinguished from dawn to dusk. Staff became accustomed to the Spartan conditions, but there was great excitement every other Tuesday when the supply boat called. Everyone except the lookout in the signal tower would troop down to the landing stage - half of them to head for shore and the others to greet returning colleagues and collect the stores and provisions which were rowed in from the supply boat which always anchored off the landing. There was a manually-operated derrick to discharge heavier items such as fuel drums, bags of coal and machinery parts, but everything still had to be carried up to the lighthouse manually. Most important, perhaps, on alternate Tuesdays there was news from the mainland.
Non-government personnel were not permitted on the island, and this included wives and families. Government argued that the difficulty of evacuating the sick or injured, and the impossibility of providing education for the children made such a ruling necessary, and they were probably correct.
Water was always a problem on Waglan, which has no natural supply, so rain water was carefully collected and conserved. Apparently the staff were very good at managing the supply of drinking water, but rationing was not uncommon.
In the early 1970s, life began to improve. New A.C. generators were installed, a pier was built so the supply boat could lie alongside, and the winched stores trolley meant an end to manual porterage. By the end of the decade, air conditioning was installed in most of the buildings, a television set had been provided, and there was a telephone link to the mainland.
Not a life which would appeal to everyone, but it must have been an attractive proposition for the men who served for so many years. Their contribution to the safety of the port deserves to be recognised and applauded. For 116 years the light has burned bright, and generations of seafarers have made landfall safely as a result.