The Noonday Gun is a Hotchkiss three-pounder naval artillery gun located in a small, enclosed site in the waterfront district of Causeway Bay. It is owned and operated by the multinational company Jardine Matheson, and is fired ceremonially every day at noon. During the firing event, a Jardines’ guard in uniform marches to the site and rings a bell to signal the end of the forenoon watch. The guard then marches to the gun and fires it before ringing the bell again and leaving. While this practice is somewhat charming in its own right, the details behind the tradition provide striking insight into Hong Kong’s British colonial history.
In 1841, Jardine Matheson, a prominent trading company founded by Scotsmen William Jardine and James Matheson, purchased the land that is now Causeway Bay. This was the first instance of public auction for colonial Hong Kong land. Jardine Matheson was one of the first trading houses in Hong Kong, locally known as ‘Hongs’, with origins dating back to Imperial China. The company mainly shipped tea and cotton, but their primary source of wealth came from trading opium and trafficking Chinese people. On the newly acquired plot, Jardine Matheson built their main offices and warehouses, which were locally known as ‘godowns’.
The origins of the Noonday Gun can be traced back to a 21-pounder gun that Jardine Matheson set up on the waterfront of their commercial territory. According to local folklore, the company’s private militia would fire the gun in honor of the Tai-Pan, or head of the company, or in some versions, whenever one of the company’s ships sailed into or out of the harbor. However, in 1860, a senior officer of the British Royal Navy, who was new to town and unfamiliar with the practice, found this offensive as typically only government officials or military officers receive such treatment. As a reprimand, Jardine Matheson was ordered to henceforth fire the gun every day at noon as a public time signal, providing a service to the community.
The story of the Noonday Gun’s origins may have a kernel of truth in its role as a public time signal. In the 19th century, it was a common practice in many harbors to use a time signal, enabling all ships within earshot to accurately synchronize their onboard clocks, which they used on voyages to calculate longitude. Therefore, the Noonday Gun was likely a practical measure that became so ingrained in daily harbor life that it gradually morphed into a local tradition.
The original Noonday Gun was dismantled by the Japanese Imperial Army during their occupation of Hong Kong in 1941. After the British forces regained control in 1945, a new six-pounder gun was gifted by the Royal Navy. However, the Noonday Gun did not resume its daily firing until July 1, 1947. This gun eventually received noise complaints, prompting the marine police to replace it with the current smaller gun in 1961. Interestingly, this particular gun has its own history, having seen action in the Battle of Jutland during the First World War.
The Noonday Gun was mentioned in the popular song ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ written by Noel Coward. The song was first performed by Beatrice Lillie in a musical revue called ‘The Third Little Show’ at the Music Box Theater in New York, on June 1, 1931. Coward himself visited Hong Kong in 1968 and was given the opportunity to fire the gun.
In Hong Kong, they strike a gong, and fire off a Noonday Gun
To reprimand each inmate who’s in late…
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!