The Noonday Gun of Hong Kong

This naval artillery gun is fired every day at noon, an odd timekeeping tradition the origin of which is local legend.

The Noonday Gun is a Hotchkiss three-pounder naval artillery gun situated on a small, enclosed site in the waterfront district of Causeway Bay. Owned and operated by the multinational company Jardine Matheson, the gun is ceremonially fired every day at noon on the dot. At the daily firing event, a Jardines’ guard marches up to the site in uniform, and first rings a bell to signal the end of the forenoon watch. Then, he marches up to the gun and fires it, after which he rings the bell again and goes off. While this practice is somewhat charming in its own right, the details behind the practice provide striking insight into Hong Kong’s British colonial history.

The land that is now Causeway Bay was bought by the trading company Jardine Matheson in 1841, which was in fact the first piece of land in colonial Hong Kong that was sold at public auction. Jardine Matheson was founded by two Scots, William Jardine and James Matheson, and was one of the first Hong Kong trading houses – locally known as Hongs – that date back to Imperial China. The company was involved in shipping tea and cotton, but their main source of wealth came from trading with opium and Chinese people. They built the company’s main offices and warehouses – known locally as godowns – on the newly acquired plot.

The Noonday Gun has its roots in a 21-pounder gun that Jardine Matheson set up on the waterfront of their commercial fiefdom. According to local folklore, the company’s private militia would fire the gun in salute whenever the Tai-Pan – the head of the company – (or, in some versions, whenever one of the company’s ships) sailed into or out of the harbor. In 1860, a senior officer of the British Royal Navy, new to town and unfamiliar with the practice, found this offensive, as typically only government dignitaries or military officers receive such treatment. As a reprimand, Jardine Matheson was ordered to henceforth fire the gun every day at noon, providing a service in the form of a public time signal.

The probable kernel of truth in this story is the gun’s role as a public time signal. This was a common practice in many harbors in the 19th century, allowing all ships within auditory range to correctly calibrate their onboard clocks, which they used on voyages to calculate longitude. Thus, the Noonday Gun is most likely a practical measure that became so common to daily harbor life that it morphed over time into local tradition.

The original gun was dismantled by the occupying Japanese Imperial Army in 1941. A new six-pounder gun was donated by the Royal Navy after the British forces regained the control of Hong Kong in 1945. However, the Noonday Gun only resumed its service on July 1, 1947. This gun received noise complaints and was replaced with the current smaller gun by the marine police in 1961. This gun has a history of its own, 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. In 1968, Coward visited Hong Kong and was allowed 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!

Sources
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noonday_Gun
https://www.scmp.com/magazines/hk-magazine/article/2037122/ask-mr-know-it-all-whats-story-behind-noonday-gun