Life as a lighthouse keeper

PHOTO: Life as a lighthouse keeper

Living in a lighthouse by the sea sounds romantic to many, but for lighthouse keeper Wang Bingjiao, it's a home that gives him not only poetic inspiration, but many responsibilities.

Wang, 56, has been safeguarding the Tuan Island Lighthouse in Qingdao, Shandong province for more than 36 years.

Standing at the southeast of Qingdao city, the Tuan Island Lighthouse overlooks the sea channel to Jiaozhou Bay, providing a navigational aid to ships passing through the channel.

The Tuan Island Lighthouse was built in 1900 by Germans and destroyed in 1914, when Japan and Germany were fighting over the control of Qingdao during World War I.

It was rebuilt by Japanese in 1919 in its current octagonal shape. With a height of 15.4 meters and a lighting range of 15 nautical miles, it has functioned as one of the most important aids for navigation off Qingdao for almost 100 years.

Work at the lighthouse is easy but monotonous. During the day, Wang usually does some cleaning and maintenance tasks. From floors to stairs, equipment to lens, everything is wiped shining clean by Wang.

When night falls, the lighthouse keeper on duty must stay awake and ensure the light doesn't go out, or stop revolving.

"We turn on the light when the sky dims - about 6:30 pm in summer and 5 pm in winter," Wang says. "When on duty, I usually climb up the lighthouse to check the lamp three times during the night to make sure the temperature of the bulb isn't too high."

There are three people stationed at the lighthouse, and they take shifts on the night watch.

Wang moved his family to the lighthouse in 1994, and now his home is only few steps away. Wang even installed a skylight above his bed, so he can see the light operating even when he is not on duty.

"Although the ships now are all equipped with radars and automatic identification system devices, the lighthouse is still important. It is a symbol of home," Wang says. "When sailors see our light, they know they are home."

"People joke that I have an obsession with light," Wang laughs.

"Indeed, it's difficult for me to fall asleep when I can't feel the beam from the lighthouse."

Loneliness is the biggest enemy for the lighthouse keeper. In order to kill time, Wang writes poems. Over the years, he has written more than 500 poems. Some of them are about his life at the lighthouse, others are about current affairs.

"In the past we only had radio, but now we have television and Internet. We are well informed about the country and the world."

In his spare time, Wang has made dozens of small inventions and improvements to this century-old lighthouse. He installed a small fan to cool the lighting lamp, so as to prolong its service life. He also invented an alarm that will send out a warning if the light goes out.

With only an elementary school education, Wang picked up his knowledge of physics and electronics through trial and error. He has set aside a special room in his home as a workshop for experiments.

Stationed at the lighthouse since the 1970s, Wang has developed a deep attachment to it.

In the early 1990s, the local government proposed to demolish the lighthouse. It was Wang who insisted on keeping it.

"The lighthouse is Qingdao's treasure; it has a history of more than 100 years," Wang says. "I told them if they want to take the lighthouse down, they have to take me down first."

After several petitions with evidence showing the historical value of the lighthouse, Wang's persistence saved the facility.

In 2008, the lighthouse was included in a list of national key cultural heritage sites.

In 2010, with the support of Qingdao Maritime Navigational Aid Bureau, an exhibition about local coastal navigation opened in the small exhibition hall next to the lighthouse.

Many items on display were collected and preserved over the past 30 years by Wang, who was also the guide of the exhibition.

More than 6,700 people have visited the exhibition.

"I am happy that more and more people come to visit the Tuan Island Lighthouse, and learn the history and culture of maritime navigational aids," Wang says.

Xing Yi contributed to the story.