Hong Kong (CNN) — Every day at noon, a large antique gun is fired in Hong Kong.
No, this has nothing to do with war, protests or conflict. The Jardine Noonday Gun is about history with a side of charitable goodness.
It gets its name from its owner, the Jardine Matheson Company, which was founded in the early 1830s. The powerful Hong Kong-based conglomerate, which has interests in everything from retail and real estate to automobiles, is known for its dramatic window-dotted skyscraper on Victoria Harbour — just a few kilometers away from where the gun is perched on the calmer waters of the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter.
There are a few apocryphal stories behind the gun, but the most commonly repeated tale is this: during the British colonial era, the gun was fired whenever the head of Jardine Matheson entered or left the building.
This man was locally known as a taipan, which is a Chinese word for the non-Chinese head of a China-based company. The plot of land the gun sits on, still owned by Jardine Matheson to this day, was the first piece of land sold to a Western private company in Hong Kong.
This was before the days of the Hong Kong subway or tram system, so the easiest way to get to and from a building on the waterfront was by boat, hence the pomp-and-circumstance feeling.
According to legend, the sound of the gun being fired — which to this day is powerful enough to jolt nearby pedestrians like a daily earthquake — made such an impression on the British Navy stationed nearby that they ordered the gun fired daily at noon as a way to make sure everyone’s clocks were on the same schedule. (The things we had to do before smartphones!)
Another version of the story has Jardine Matheson’s taipan being greeted by a 21-gun salute, to the horror of the local military who reserve that tradition for high ranking officers. As a result, the Navy “punished” Jardine Matheson by forcing them to institute the daily noontime gun-firing.
Whatever the accurate backstory, it’s a uniquely Hong Kong tradition that has outlasted world wars, a governmental handover and multiple major weather incidents.
There is one exception to the strict schedule, though: New Year’s Eve, when the gun is fired at midnight.
For visitors to Hong Kong, a trip to the Noonday Gun checks off several boxes. It’s free — always a perk in an expensive city — and conveniently located near one of the island’s most hotel-packed neighborhoods.
The only time this attraction is open to visitors is from 12:00-12:30 p.m. every day, which requires you to time your visit appropriately, but it’s the rare tourist spot that is fun for both little kids and history buffs.
For a special treat, it is possible for a civilian to have the honor of firing the gun themselves.
The only way to make this happen is by donating a not-small amount to MINDSET, a mental health organization funded by Jardine’s. In addition to the extremely cool act of firing a giant vintage gun in a major global city in the middle of a workday, you’ll get a commemorative bullet casing (not the one you just fired, it’s a replica) as a keepsake. However, this is no mere tax writeoff: the minimum donation is $28,000 HKD ($3,600) for individual donors and $38,000 ($4,900) HKD for corporate ones.
Beyond the urban jungle there’s a greener side to Hong Kong, with miles of mountainous routes within easy reach of the city.
Another charity with a similar system is Community Chest, a local community enrichment organization that supports needy Hong Kongers. If a person or business donates at least $33,000 HKD ($4,250) to the group, they too become eligible to fire the gun — although an additional application is required once they confirm their donation total.
Remnants of Hong Kong’s past
One of the most special things about Hong Kong is its combination of modern and historic. Even street names can give you a clue toward what an area’s not-so-recent past was.
One example — not far from the Noonday Gun, among the shiny exteriors of western luxury brands — there’s a little alley called Jardine’s Bazaar. There, you can find booths crammed with everything from feng shui decorations to socks and portable fans.
The street and the gun may both bear the name of Jardine, but they’re as different as two places can be.
That said, the gun is possibly more notable for what it isn’t than for what it is. Not only will you be hard pressed to find a local attending the firing ceremony, it’s common to find Hongkongers who go running or walk their dog past the gun every day without knowing a single thing about it.
Professor John M. Carroll of Hong Kong University’s history department grew up within earshot of the Noonday Gun, but he says there’s probably more information about it on Wikipedia than in his own memory.
“Only a small fraction of Hong Kong’s population lives on Hong Kong Island, the gun goes off only once per day, and most (local) people probably don’t know who Noel Coward was,” he says.
Carroll, who is also the author of “A Concise History of Hong Kong,” adds: “As a historian, why something didn’t happen, or why people don’t know anything about something, is always a rather odd question. It would be interesting to know what the people living on the boats in the typhoon shelter thought.”
The original gun was removed by the Japanese forces during World War II and replaced afterward by a similar model.
There’s a reason Carroll mentions Noel Coward, the British writer, humorist and historian who died in 1978.
The best known English-language pop culture reference to the Noonday Gun comes from Coward’s 1931 song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” The dated song talks about how only the two titular groups are crazy enough to go out in the hot midday sun in Asia.
Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this foolish habit.
In Hong Kong
They strike a gong
And fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who’s in late.