“Please avoid prolonged exposure to wintry winds,” says the Cold Weather Warning issued by the Hong Kong Observatory. This is a bitter blow for those of us who were planning to go down to the waterfront this morning, throw a towel on a concrete bench near the ferry terminals, strip off our clothes and stretch out for a long, relaxing day basking in the northeast monsoon rolling through town on its long journey down from the Siberian uplands. Interestingly, we also have a Red Fire Warning (not to be confused with a Red Fire Ants Warning – pay attention!) to remind us that, though chilly, the dry hills are just a spark away from furnace-like conflagration.
But wait! There’s more! A Frost Warning, applicable only to New Territories mountain vegetable growers who still haven’t heard that World War II has ended, was up overnight, but has now come down. And we have a Red Flag Warning alerting us to the possibility that Big Wave Bay wasn’t called that just for fun. Meanwhile, the roadside Air Pollution Index in Central today is Very High, which means ‘mostly nitrogen oxide, some oxygen’.
The big excitement for government officials whose duty it is to raise alarms is the first-ever Red Outbound Travel Alert, advising Hong Kong people to avoid prolonged exposure to Thailand on account – as it happens – of matching Red Shirts, the supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin, who are planning a major march in Bangkok in the next few days.
The OTA system was introduced in October 2009 in response to widespread public whining after Hong Kong tourists suffered inconvenience when protests, also in Bangkok, shut down airports (Yellow Shirts on that occasion). It covers the 50 countries Hong Kong people are most likely to visit, which is why the likes of Afghanistan and Somalia do not appear.
Under the easy-to-remember system, an Amber Warning (currently applying to five countries with predominant or large Muslim populations but obviously that’s just a coincidence) means ‘Everything is cool, you can probably relax, but don’t blame the Security Bureau if you get shot or kidnapped because we issued an Amber Warning’.
The Red Warning is a much bigger deal, causing in this instance the cancellation of package tours to the Land of Smiles, and therefore inflicting commercial costs on travel companies and airlines (though only outbound operators – it’s not like it affects our precious mainland tourist trade). It essentially means ‘We wouldn’t go there ourselves, but then we’re Hong Kong bureaucrats who fall sick after touching handrails and won’t let our kids play on grass, so everything’s probably fine, but you can’t say we didn’t put up a Red Warning’.
The Black Warning will probably rarely or never happen, because it could cost other businesses money. Some corporate HR departments and travel insurance policies undertake to evacuate people if it is raised. It means ‘We’re going to freeeeeak out even if you don’t, and why didn’t you listen to us when we issued the Red Warning. And please pass the antibacterial hand gel’.