Having a bad air day

It’s that time of the year again. Roadside air pollution in Hong Kong reaches such disgusting levels that pedestrians stop in their paths every few minutes to gasp for breath, wipe gummy accumulations of nitrous oxide from their eyes and blow sticky, dark grey clumps of respirable suspended particulates from their nostrils. Throat-clearing, coughing and colds become so frequent that they are considered healthily normal. There are winners: doctors write more prescriptions and bills than ever, and the manufacturers of Nice Day tissue paper pay out a special dividend.

The usual bunch of whiny expatriates, claiming to fear for their kids, threaten to leave the Big Lychee for cleaner surroundings even though this would entail paying at least twice as much salaries tax, which we all know perfectly well they are not going to do. Meanwhile, back in their 1970s time-warp, the real-estate company known as the Government seeks new ways to increase the level of emissions; the latest idea is to redevelop its headquarters just above Central – one of the last bits of more-or-less low-rise space left in the area – as an exciting commercial tower, complete with yet another mall full of glitzy shops no-one ever seems to go into, and a car park to attract more desperately needed traffic into the district. This, according to Chief Executive Donald Tsang, is ‘development’ and the sacred duty of his administration.

As a sop to opponents who, if they had their way, would abandon Queen’s Road to water buffalo, officials came up with a plan to make the air slightly less poisonous by forcing all vehicles parked by the roadside to switch off their engines. Needless to say, every vested interest in town has been allowed a veto or opt-out, so the (barely enforceable) new law will now apply to all vehicles except taxis, buses, school buses, minibuses, officials’ limos, the cops, white vans whose sweaty drivers have dragons tattooed on their backs, trucks carrying dead pigs, BMWs with Hello Kitty dolls displayed above the rear seat, and Panzer-sized people carriers and Mercedes with nasty fat children peering through darkened windows. Is there anyone we’ve missed?

Gullible journalists recently broke the amazing news story that an organism had been discovered that lived off arsenic and was probably from the planet Zarg. While the bacterium turned out to be a terrestrial life-form being hacked about by mad professors, it makes us wonder whether any species are making evolutionary adaptations to Hong Kong’s polluted air. One clue could be the sharp increase in the number of think-tanks in the city, which seem to be multiplying at such a rate that there will soon be no room left for the slime that causes red tides.

Scientists have recently found two new ones. One is the Community Development Initiative, which may or may not have mutated from the (possibly extinct) Vision 2047 Foundation, and seems to especially attract former civil servants. The other is the Hong Kong Ideas Centre, which also has a few former officials hanging around, with a dash of pro-Beijing. Both agonize about the helplessness of Hong Kong, adrift in the world without any future role or hope – a tragic fate that mysteriously befell us soon after all their ex-bureaucrat members retired.

As with the tycoon-funded wannabe shadow government that is the Bauhinia Foundation, these creatures spend much of their time pondering hubs. Both are into creative industries, of course. The CDI also likes things like planning, political reform and labour issues and uses words like ‘charrette’. The HKIC is into the heavy hub hardcore so beloved of our countless hundreds of self-appointed expert groups – to the extent we could say it feeds on intellectual carrion. Anyone in need of yet another highly original call on the heavens to turn Hong Kong into a Renminbi hub, a Chinese medicine hub or an education hub can step right up and help themselves.

The HKIC’s latest contribution to civic debate is to urge the construction of a third runway at the airport. There may be a case for this, or it could be that the use of larger aircraft on growing routes (like upgrading from B737s/A300s to 747s) makes it less pressing. But the logic seems to be that we should assume that airports compete with each other and it comes down to rankings. Thus, if more flights go in and out of Shanghai, Hong Kong in some way suffers. This echoes the old panic about the relative decline of our container port, no longer the world’s number-one. Transporting metal boxes in and out of our city on huge trucks with badly tuned diesel engines was judged to be so important that the link with Zhuhai had to be a road rather than rail bridge.

Looking at the Standard’s report, it also seems that failure to expand Chek Lap Kok will imperil our logistics, tourism, exhibitions and conventions industries. Which makes we wonder whether, rather than having one more runway, we should speed the process up and shut one of the existing two down. Can it be a coincidence that Hong Kong was much nicer when we had Kai Tak?

This leads to a much more profound question: why does our brainstorming ecosystem not accommodate a sort of anti-think-tank? A policy institute that produces learned papers presented by serious-looking professionals calling for a 50% reduction in tourist numbers, the relocation of downtown shopping malls to the border, the outsourcing of public medical care to cheaper offshore suppliers, the scrapping of all government spending designed to encourage trendy innovative/green/creative/tech industries. A body that does a bit of lateral thinking and asks whacky questions. Like what the hell are all those vehicles with idling engines doing by the roadside anyway and why not just widen the sidewalks so there’s no parking space?

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11 Responses to Having a bad air day

  1. Phil S Stein says:

    All your musings are defeated by one sad fact.

    Ask 100 Honkies whether they would pay even one dollar more on a bus journey to have cleaner fuel and cleaner air and they will back away and call you crazy.

    Pigs like ordure. Philistines like cash and a full belly. Get real or get out.

  2. Gerald Simmonds says:

    I’m still puzzled about the air pollution here. There aren’t THAT many more busses than there used to be, and the more recent models, though polluting, are far cleaner than those run by, say, the terrible old CMB.
    Taxis are all gas-powered, virtually all cars (thanks to their status-conscious owners) are nearly all new or near new (and hence less polluting) so it would seem the filthy air is emanating from the PRC. Or am I missing something?

  3. Brocco Li says:

    I think the density of this city plays a part. If you see 7 of those elephant double-deckers lined up at a traffic light, all spewing fumes that get caught inside those concrete canyons, you can almost feel the angina kicking in.

    And don’t even mention those lorries pumping black plumes of death into your face.

    When Donald “the Emperor” Tsang sits in his chauffeur-driven limo when he gets his pompous little ass transported from Upper Albert Road all the way to Lower Albert Road, he has no idea.

  4. Doctor Double-Dip says:

    I think you’re right Gerald. You could also mention the ferries being cleaner than the old diesel models; the power stations being modernised and de-centralised from Tsing Yi to Castle Peak; the airport being decentralised from Kai Tak to CLK … perhaps we should have a cleaner city, these days, if anything.

    It is (sadly) politics which often dictates that we can’t mention where much of our dirty air really comes from.

  5. Revolution says:

    I was under the impression that air pollution from the Mainland had fallen significantly over the last 10 years, but despite this the pollution situation has worsened. There is some study (possibly by Friends of the Earth) to this effect.

    If that is right, the major reasons for the increase are “canyoning” as Brocco says, and crucially the rapid growth in car ownership over the past decade. I recall reading somewhere that car ownership has doubled in Hong Kong over that period, and the near gridlock at rush hour and at weekends in HK Island would bear this out. The cars we have may pollute less, but there are a hell of a lot more of them.

  6. Doctor Double-Dip says:

    Go to Tung Chung, Rev. There are not very many cars. There are absolutely no ‘canyons’. Yes, there is an airport, but aircraft fuel is particulate-free.

    And yet the pollution is awful. You cannot see the conning tower on many days. You certainly cannot see across the delta to Zhuhai on all but a handful of days in June/July. Forget nice sunsets (which I could see pretty much see any day of the year

    The pollution from the Mainland (especially the Pearl River Delta) is surely massive.

  7. Doctor Double-Dip says:

    Oops … 2nd paragraph should have said:

    “Forget nice sunsets (which I could see pretty much see any day of the year from Kennedy Town a few years ago …)”

  8. Gerald Simmonds says:

    I’m not so sure that there ARE that many more cars – and they certainly are a lot less polluting than they used to be as all new cars have to comply with Euro standards.

    And as for the “canyon arguement” – it may be true, but then how do you explain the extensive air pollution in Tung Chung, Sai Kung etc.?

    For sure the bus companies could do more – I’ve seen gas powered busses elsewhere, so why not here?

  9. mumphLT says:

    My travels in South China and specifically the industrial areas from SZ to DG to Chouzhou, to Foshan, GZ assure me that the air quality in that area with all of their factories is as least as shitty as HK and just might be a contributing factor to our awful air quality. Assuming that pollutants don’t need a visa to pass through Lo Wu or such.

  10. gweipo says:

    “it makes us wonder whether any species are making evolutionary adaptations to Hong Kong’s polluted air.”

    don’t you get it – all the fat cats eat copious quantities of shark’s fin soup – that’s the antidote to pollution! It’s obvious, otherwise any sane person would phase it out…

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