Swatow Typhoon of 1922

“When the tidal wave came, the most vulnerable died tragically: some parents who carried several children were forced to let go the daughters to save themselves from drowning. Some mothers carried the babies with them and floated in the water, but the husbands took away the babies in order to save their wives. Some elderly parents could not swim and their sons did not abandon them, and they were all drowned. Some parents could not hold too many children together and they griped the children’s hair and little arms, but when they reached the high grounds, the younger ones had already died. Some elderly parents did not want to burden their adult children and they drowned themselves in order to save the family line. There were couples tied themselves together with strings but they were drowned. After the disaster, some people could not bear the deaths of their loved ones and they committed suicide.”

~ Chen Yuan (陳沅), magistrate of Jaopeng county


2023 has come. However, we cannot allow 2022 to pass without looking back at the Swatow Typhoon of 1922, an event that took away as many as 100,000 lives, but arguably also defined the Teochew people.

Lying along the Tropic of Cancer on the southern coast of China, the Teochew region is visited by a number of typhoons formed in the Pacific Ocean between June and November every year. Accordingly, the port of Swatow was placed on alert when telegraphic reports of the formation of a tropical depression in the Philippines were received in late July 1922.

The city had only light winds and showers on the morning of 2nd August, but a perceptible fall in the barometer presented a clear indication of the approach of a typhoon. By afternoon, the winds grew stronger and the rain became heavier. Ships and fishing boats were called into the harbour to take shelter. But nothing could prepare them for what was to come.

Pic.1 - Swatow harbour in a state of calm, circa 1922. (Source: Swatow: Ursulines in China)

That evening, an ominous dark yellow hue enveloped Swatow's sky for about half an hour after sunset. The captain and crew of Kweichow, a Hong Kong steamer unloading cargo at the port that day, gave a graphic picture of what unfolded in the next few hours:

By eight o’clock a strong wind was blowing and the weather was very thick and overcast. As the wind increased, the master veered the ship for safety and let go the second anchor. At 10.30 p.m. the wind increased to typhoon force and was accompanied by heavy deluges of rain. For the next two hours squalls of terrific violence severely tested the vessel and the tremendous rain continued and increased. About this time the barometer became unreadable; 28.40 is the typhoon reading and the needle went far below this point, wavering over the unmarked part of the dial.

Pic.2 - Barometer readings at Swatow going off the charts on 2nd and 3rd August 1922 (Source: Monthly Weather Review, Volume 50 Issue 8)


Suddenly, at 12.30 a.m. the wind fell light and blew like a gentle summer breeze. After the deafening noise of the rain and gale, the contrast was eerie; one could hear once more the lesser sounds such as the lapping of the waves against the ship. It was quiet and still, making it seem as though the storm of the last four hours was nothing but a terrible dream. During this time the wind veered suddenly from north, through east to east-southeast. Those on board who had previous experience of typhoons realised that they were now in the very centre of the great vortex of air caused by the typhoon.
The strange calm continued for exactly one hour and five minutes. At 1.40 p.m. the wind commenced to freshen from the south-south-west, whereas it had previously been blowing from a north-west and northerly direction. It was evident that the margin of the typhoon, which had been circling from a northerly direction had passed over Swatow, and the opposite margin which, like the rim of a wheel, was moving in the contrary direction as the centre of the typhoon revolved, was now passing over Swatow. Previously the full force of the wind had been felt by the European Settlement opposite Swatow; now the native town was to get the full force of the storm. With squalls increasing in duration, and shorter intervals between them, the wind rapidly rose again to typhoon force and probably reached its greatest violence at 2.30 a.m. The typhoon was then twice as bad as it had ever been before the interval of calm.
From 2.30 to 3.10 a.m. the typhoon was at its greatest violence; this was also the experience of those ashore. The wind blew with terrific force and without a moment’s lull, howling and screaming and accompanied by deluges of rain. It was impossible to walk even on the more sheltered parts of the ship’ the officers had to crawl when it was necessary to move about the vessel, and of course, it was necessary to make sure that no one on a special post—watching anchor cables, for instance—was not swept overboard. During the forty minutes of the typhoon’s utmost severity, the ship listed heavily to port and trembled violently from stern to stern. As it appeared afterwards that the ship had not run aground, it is believed that the list was caused by the passing of the tidal wave which follows in the wake of a typhoon, the water being sucked up into the vortex at the centre. (It was at this time that a tidal wave passed over the Bund.) The wind was literally screaming and the rain fell in blinding walls of water. It was impossible to get one’s breath when facing the wind and rain. At 3.20 a.m. the squalls gradually decreased in duration with longer intervals between and, as the night wore on, the weather moderated. The barometer began to register again at 2.40 a.m. when it came on to the marked portion of the dial and showed 28 inches. From that point it gradually rose, and, as Mr Mandell, the second officer, expressed it, “came back to sanity”.

(“Enormous Typhoon Damage at Swatow”, Hong Kong Daily Press, 7th August 1922)

The speed of the winds that lashed the city, in the estimation of a ship captain, reached 100 miles per hour. As for the storm surge, it was said to be as high as 10, or even 12, feet above normal. The winds blew off the roof of the Catholic Ursuline Convent that stood near the waterfront and its Mother Superior Sister Marie du Rosaire, who had only landed at Swatow the week before, later recalled her harrowing ordeal that night:

By the time this letter reaches you, you will have received news of the terrible disaster that struck Swatow and its surroundings and from which we escaped only by a miracle. A typhoon, worse than anyone can remember, descended upon the city about 10 o'clock in the evening.
 We had been in bed about an hour. Although the wind was very strong we were not frightened because the Bishop had explained to us that afternoon that a typhoon was on its way and so we had expected to spend a somewhat sleepless night.
But suddenly the windows were flung open, the panes of glass were splintered, the shutters were torn off, a torrential rain inundated us from all sides, the roof was partly removed and our beds were turned upside down.
 For about a half—hour the three of us held the door closed that faced the tempest and that threatened at every instant to give way against the violent gusts. Finally, exhausted by our efforts, we decided to go down to the lower floor, where we thought we would be safer. My two companions left first in order to put our boxes of books and provisions under cover from the rain, which was flooding in torrents. Kimki, our Chinese Virgin, and a friend of hers stayed with me to help me in keeping the door from opening; for if the wind ever got inside, the house would be done for.
After about an hour I was so exhausted that I led Kimki and her friend to another exit leading off the gallery, but we could not get it open; the wind was stronger than we were. We groped our way like blind people (it was pitch black) to escape into the adjoining rooms. But here too the door was jammed shut. The two Chinese prayed and wept. As for me, I recommended myself to the Holy Family and to the Guardian Angels and started pulling again on the door. It suddenly opened so that I and my companions could get through and then suddenly closed behind us with a bang. In the room we had to cross to get to the stairs, the ceiling came crashing down and the rain swept over us. How would we ever get out? Finally we found the stairs, and started down but once downstairs what a horror! The water was up to our waists and the wind, the darkness, the rain were all around us. I tried to open the door on my right but it was impossible. Then I tried the left; it half-opened for a second and then slammed shut so violently that it almost caught my fingers. "St. Joseph, help us," I prayed, and the door opened again and we were able to get into the dining room where I expected to find my sisters. But alas, there was no one there and the water was constantly rising. "Sister Ste. Croix, Sister Marie de I’Incarnation, where are you? Please answer me." But there was only silence. My God, what has happened to them? I called again, "Sister Ste. Croix, where are you?" Then I heard, "We're over here on the table in the parlor. Come here with us." But the table was not a safe place and we thought it would be better if we could get outside, but we couldn't manage it. I felt myself drowning, with water in my mouth and my ears, my head pushed backward. I struggled in my desperation, crying, "Jesus, Mary, Joseph!"
All of a sudden there were two pieces of wood under my arms, and I could lift myself above the water. Immediately I called to my two sisters but I got no answer; the wind carried my voice away. Finally I heard Sister Ste. Croix and I cried to her, "Stay inside! If you come out the current will carry you away." Together we called Sister Marie de I’Incarnation but there was no answer, and we concluded that she was probably drowned.
I could go neither backward nor forward when a gust of wind carried off my supports. "I'm going," I called out to Ste. Croix. "Stay here," she cried, but it was impossible; the current was carrying me off. I was drifting away. The wind was sweeping me into the darkness on this tide of mud and filth, all covered with debris. Twice I lost my balance and began to sink. If I opened my mouth, I was suffocated with water. Then I began to say interiorly: "St. Joseph, save me! I haven't chosen you for my father and Good Angel! St. Joseph, are you going to let me die?"


The sister’s prayers were answered in the end as she clung on to a drifting bed that carried her over some distance to a cemetery, where she found shelter with a local family and their pig under two stone tombs. 

 Only at daybreak, did the extent of the devastation to the city become visible. There were more buildings fallen than standing. Ships were stranded onshore, a couple several miles inland. Dead bodies of humans and animals not floating in the waters were strewn all over.

Pic.3 - Scene of post-typhoon Swatow. (Source: Roy Maxwell Talbot Digital Collection)
Pic 4. - Local men inspecting a fallen building after the typhoon
Pic.5 - The facade of what remained of a building. This photograph was part of a set of 99 captioned images commissioned by Choon Sim Siang Teung Charitable Hall after the Swatow Typhoon for the purpose of fundraising.

Severe damage to telephone and telegraph lines meant that the city could not seek help from outside until more than 24 hours after the disaster, when another steamer, Kwaisang, sailed into port. It sent the following rescue message to Hong Kong:

Heavy typhoon at Swatow. Extensive damage to properties and heavy loss of native life. Pontoons and godowns wrecked. Tungshing and Shantung [name of ships] and others badly ashore. No means of working cargo.

 (“Typhoon Damage at Swatow”, Hong Kong Daily Press, 5th August 1922)

Pic.6 - The Shantung grounded in Swatow harbour.

Swatow is situated on the delta of Hangkang (or Han River) and surrounded by an extensive alluvial plain. The low ground permitted the tidal wave that followed the centre of the typhoon to inflict maximum damage, which Fannie Northcott of the American Baptist Mission explained:

Before the typhoon, this plain was more or less densely populated by fishermen and a few farmers, who lived in groups of villages…. Because the land was level, large numbers of villages were exposed to the tidal wave. When it washed in over the plain, it carried on its course, houses and humans across the plain inland, in some instances, 5, 7, or 9 miles; then to be thrown up on the side of a hill… When the wave receded, it carried out to sea, hundreds of bodies… Many of the villages are entirely deserted. All but a few tens of men were drowned, and they have gone other places to look for work. Their fields are soaked with salt water and their houses down; boats washed away, women and children drowned, and they go away from the fearful sorrow of all.

Fig.7 - Early 20th-century map showing the locations of Swatow (at the time occupying a small area now called Laoqiku [老市區, "old city district]), Thenghai (Chinghai), Jaopeng (Jao-ping) and Teo-yor (Chao-Yang). Source: Basel Mission Archives.
The world only came to realise the magnitude of the calamity when the Kweichow, which miraculously escaped unscathed, reached Hong Kong on the 5th of August. Without hesitation, the local colonial government allocated $10,000 towards a relief fund and ordered 50 tons of rice and other supplies to be delivered to Swatow.

On the fourth day after the typhoon, the Hong Kong Branch of the Swatow of Chamber Commerce issued a circular letter that read:

As the result of the typhoon, the loss of life and damage to property at Swatow and the surrounding districts is enormous.
Arrivals from the stricken area state that 28,000 bodies of victims have already been recovered. The Benevolent Societies are endeavouring to give them a decent burial, but owing to the scarcity of coffins many have been interred in gunny—bags or mattresses, and the pitiful scenes can be better imagined than described.
Individual members of this Chamber have already subscribed a sum of $25,000 for immediate relief, but owing to the destruction of food supplies at Swatow this will only partially relieve the prevailing distress. It is hoped that both Chinese and foreign firms, and also private individuals, will contribute. A relief committee has been appointed to interview business firms, but in the meantime subscriptions may be forwarded to the Swatow Chamber of Commerce, 29, Connaught Road West. All subscriptions will be published in the local Press.
The Chamber desires to express its gratitude to the Nippon Yusen Kaisha, agents for the Lushan Maru, who delayed that vessel in order that 1,000 piculs of rice purchased with earlier subscriptions could be shipped to Swatow.

 (“The Disaster in Swatow”, Hong Kong Daily Press, 8th August 1922)

In response to the appeal, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce opened a public subscription fund to aid the victims and over $28,000 was raised within hours from the British and foreign community. The local Chinese Chamber of Commerce also followed suit to start its own Swatow Relief Fund.

Meanwhile, the death count continued to rise. International papers published on the 10th of August an estimation of 50,000 casualties and 100,000 homeless by the American Consul at Swatow. The Teochew huiguan (or association) in Shanghai, on the other hand, was informed that at least 100,000 people perished in the affected coastal counties of Thenghai, Jaopeng and Teo-yor.

Fig.8 - La Domenica del Corriere, an Italian weekly newspaper, showing an artist's imagination of the destructive force of the Swatow Typhoon. Note the illustration of the men wearing pigtails. 

 As news of the disaster found its way out of China, the heads of the Teochew communities in Siam, Vietnam, Singapore and Penang wasted little time raiseing funds and sending rice to aid their families and kinsmen. They were strongly backed by other overseas Chinese, as seen in the example of the Teochew (Swatow) Relief Fund of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which collected donations of over $27,000 on the very day of its creation.

The stream of help from abroad proved critical. The transgressing tide from the sea had not only ruined food supplies in the stores but also rendered the farmland of affected areas infertile. Moreover, there was no government in China that the people of Teochew could expect rescue from. The official central authority at the time, the Beiyang government, was seated far away in Beijing and hopelessly divided. An emissary of President Li Yuanhong only travelled to Swatow to bring relief of 50,000 silver dollars four months after the typhoon. The Kuomintang, which had established a rival government in Guangdong in 1921, was also in disarray after its president, Sun Yat-sen, was ousted from Guangzhou following the rejection of the provincial military commander, Chen Chiung-ming, to his plans for war against the warlords ruling other parts of the country.

Fig.9 - Chen Chiung-ming (Chen Jiongming), former military leader of Guangdong province, which the Teochew region is administered under. The government of the native of Haifeng (a county adjacent to Teochew) gave 60,000 silver dollars towards the relief of Swatow in 1922, outdoing Li Yuanhong's government.

As for the Swatow municipal government, it was only formed in the previous year after Swatow was granted city status and separated from Thenghai. The low regard its authority was held in the eyes of the public was apparent when a group of 3,000 unarmed bandits threatened to loot the district if they were not guaranteed a sum of $100,000, and when a handful of native dealers tried to jack up the price of rice, sparking attacks by incensed mobs. While the city leaders managed to maintain order by imposing martial law, dealing with the pressing issues of potential food and water shortage and the danger of plague, as dead bodies started to decompose under the summer heat, needed more sophistication and resources.

Officers of Hai Ching, a ship that came from Xiamen but failed to discharge its consignments at Swatow, reported in Hong Kong that no less than 2,500 bodies were taken from the water on the day it was in port. Many corpses were piled up in front of a temple near the Bund—a situation blamed on the objections of the locals against the burying of the bodies without coffins, and this resulted in noisome odours in the air that compelled people to walk on the streets with their nostrils covered in a cloth or handkerchief, containing small balls of camphor, and the officers to cut short their visit. As if oblivious to the risk of exposing themselves to diseases, some locals were also spotted bathing and washing clothes in water with floating human, buffalo and cattle bodies.

Fig.10 - Bodies covered with mats laid out in front of the Choon Sim Siang Teung Charitable Hall, which foreign news reports referred to as "the temple near the Bund".

At this point of crisis, the resourceful merchants in Swatow knew they had to step up. One day after the typhoon, a Swatow Disaster Relief Office (汕頭賑災善後辦事處) was set up with the city mayor and the president of the Swatow Chamber of Commerce as chairman and vice-chairman respectively. With a mandate to coordinate relief work both in the urban settlement and the districts around, the office organised several committees to oversee the removal of obstacles, restoration of traffic and reconstruction of shophouses; the distribution of porridge and food to victims; the management of medical aid, diseases and sanitation; the conduct of field surveys to collect information; and inspection of finances.

To fulfil the tasks required for securing public health, the merchants activated the charitable halls (善堂, also called benevolent societies) in Swatow, which they themselves were the managers and funders. In particular, Choon Sim Siang Teung Charitable Hall (存心善堂), which was the largest organisation (and still active in Swatow today), was given charge of collecting and burying the dead bodies, while the municipal authority played its part by offering rewards to those men who were willing to dirty their hands.

On the conduct of this work, Sister Marie du Rosaire observed:

Swatow alone has 50,000 dead - either lost or drowned. At every moment of the day or night the stretcher-bearers pass in front of the bishopric with their dead. At first they had coffins; but now the bodies are simply put in matting. They have been picking them up now for five days. The Chinese are very respectful of their dead and will not let anyone go without burial.
The way the Chinese have taken this disaster is truly remarkable. They don't seem to be crushed. They collect the debris from their houses and their little bamboo huts as though it were something quite ordinary.  (Swatow: Ursulines in China)
Fig.11 - Choon Sim Siang Teung Charitable Hall volunteers distributing rice.
Fig.12 - A young boy looking on, with coffins lined up behind him.
Fig.13 - Group of men clearing the debris of broken walls at warehouses.

Through their business and family links, the Swatow merchants were also able to rally their counterparts based outside Teochew. The powerful huiguan in Shanghai led the efforts of the Teochew merchants in other Chinese cities by contributing 75,000 silver dollars and also interceding with the Guangzhou military authorities to reduce taxation in the area. Leaving no stone unturned, its directors further directed a charitable hall in Swatow to arrange for the adoption of orphans, shipped ten thousand sets of clothing and coordinated and financed the repair of broken dikes.

 As for the Teochew association in Hong Kong, it organised several medical teams and contributed money to the English Presbyterian-run Swatow Mission Hospital (汕頭福音醫院), which among providing other services, worked with the local boy scouts troop to make house-to-house visits to offer medical aid.

By the 13th of August Swatow’s port was back in operation, marking a milestone in the city’s recovery. However, the villages in Thenghai, which bore the worst of the brunt, were still struggling to finish burying their dead. Despite the county officials and the village gentry initiating local relief and rehabilitation efforts, not every community was in a position to help itself. Noi Sha, a village of 10,000 inhabitants near Swatow that was swept by the tidal wave, for example, was left with 25 survivors and the bodies of those who drowned had dammed the river in the area, causing the flow of water to stop. At another village of nearly 600 inhabitants, Northcott reported, only 48 men and 1 woman remained among a mass of fallen walls.

Fig.14 - A photograph with the caption "Typhoon destruction August 2 1922".

The headmen in Thenghai tried to hire hands to help clear the bodies, but were let down by the refusal of most villagers to take up the work. Fortunately, their desperate appeals for help to the charitable halls in neighbouring Teo-Ann county, whose members—many being common peasants and fishermen—readily travelled to the sites at their own expense and with no expectation of reward. Joined by kind-hearted individuals, they toiled in unsanitary environments for days adding up to a month without protection, except for pieces of garlic stuffed in their noses to fight off the stench of rot. 

Fig.15 - Rice being loaded onto a Choon Sim Siang Teung Charitable Hall boat for distribution beyond Swatow.

Fig.16 - A Choon Sim Siang Teung Charitable Hall group photograph taken with the representative of President Li Yuanhong on 4th December 1922.

Swatow would recover from the disaster of 1922 and go on to grow to become China’s third most prosperous port city, behind only Shanghai, Guangzhou. Sadly, its progress was halted by the city’s occupation by the Japanese at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war in 1938. The Teochew trading networks straddling the South China Sea that were responsible for its wealth would then be dismantled by the expansion of the Second World War to Southeast Asia, the outbreak of the Chinese civil war, the Great Chinese Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the upheavals in Indo-China in the 1970s developments that caused more destruction than the Swatow Typhoon. 

Yet, through all these, the people in Teochew never forgot what happened in 1922. In the run-up to the Swatow Typhoon’s 100th anniversary last August, researchers conducting field research in Thenghai located in various villages no fewer than 30 steles dated to the 1920s that faithfully documented the tragedy and its aftermath. But the memories were not just etched in stone. Even though a century has passed, descendants of the disaster's victims and survivors continue to pay their respects at the mass graves that litter the Teochew region’s coast on the 11th day of the 6th lunar month every year. 

Fig.17 - A pair of 3 metres tall steeles that were rediscovered at a secondary school in Thenghai in 2013. The stone tablets recorded not only the Swatow Typhoon tragedy, but also the gratitude of the locals towards the selfless assistance of kinsmen at home and abroad.  (Image source: Dahuawang)

 A long history of floods, typhoons, earthquakes and famines, along with piracy, rebellions and wars, had taught the Teochew people the strategy of survival through the building of unbreakable bonds in family and clan, even to the perverse extent where communities built walls around their clusters of houses and warred against their neighbours during the Qing dynasty times—a phenomenon that caused missionary James Hudson Taylor to warn visitors to Swatow that “to be kindly received in one place was not uncommonly a source of danger in the next”. However, when the tidal wave swept through in 1922, it also tore down these invisible walls of suspicion and taught the people in their darkest hour the Gaginang spirit that the Teochew people are now known for. 

Today many of us live in sufficiency or even abundance. We talk about Gaginang as a byword and even sing about it. But to be a true Gaginang means much more — it is living a life that involves the denial, and even sacrifice, of ourselves for the sake of the greater good and the people we call family.

As our forebears taught us: “Teochew-nang, Gaginang, pah-si bho-siang-gang” (潮州人, 家己人, 拍死無相干) — “Teochew people, my fellow people, I am willing to die for you”.

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