More than 180,000 people were evacuated from coastal areas of southern China Wednesday as Typhoon Chanchu, the strongest storm to hit the region at this time of year, churned towards the mainland and Hong Kong.

The evacuees, all from Guangdong province, were relocated to safe shelters while the province also recalled more than 25,000 ships at sea, China's offical Xinhua news agency quoted the provincial disaster relief office as saying.

In Hong Kong 26 flights have been cancelled, most of which were heading for mainland China. Eight international flights were delayed. Many ferry services were suspended and beaches closed.

The typhoon, which killed 41 people and left thousands homeless when it tore through the Philippines Saturday, is the strongest on record to have entered the South China Sea in May, the Hong Kong Observatory said.

At 8:00 am (2400 GMT) Wednesday, the storm was located 440 kilometers (273 miles) south of the Guangdong city of Shanwei.

Moving northeastward at 20 to 23 kilometers per hour and packing winds of 162 kph near its center, the eye is expected to pass just east of Hong Kong Wednesday before slamming into Guangdong, local observatories said.

The Guangzhou Meteorological Station forecast the typhoon may land in coastal regions between Shenzhen and Raoping counties Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, according to the China Daily newspaper.

However, it may veer east toward eastern China's Fujian province and the Taiwan Strait instead, state media quoted Huang Zhong, chief weatherman with the Guangzhou station, as saying.

Shantou city in the east of Guangdong could be hardest hit, the China Daily quoted Wang Yongxin, chief forecaster of the province's Marine Observatory, as saying.

In Guangdong's Shenzhen city, local authorities issued landslide warnings at some high-risk places and were ready to evacuate people if necessary, the China Daily said.

Advertisement billboards were either reinforced or removed. The city government has advised people to stay at home, close windows and move flowerpots from balconies.

Nearby Fujian and Hainan provinces were also braced for damage with Hainan ordering a halt to sea and rail transport across the Qiongzhou Strait between the island and Guangdong.

In Hong Kong several trees were felled by high winds.

Winds as high as 74 kph were recorded and there was concern about flooding in low-lying areas, the observatory said. Classes at kindergartens and some other schools were also called off.

Hong Kong authorities warned residents to protect their windows and doors, and advised builders to secure all scaffolding. It also advised fishing vessels to seek shelter immediately.

A man surfing at a Hong Kong beach Wednesday morning was almost swept away by a 20-foot wave there but managed to hang on to the cliff and was rescued later, a witness said.

Hong Kong and Guangdong regularly suffer torrential rain and flooding from typhoons that normally occur between May and November.