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In part of a series of columns on living in Hong Kong, John Schaeffer, Op-Ed Editor, writes about life and living in Hong Kong.
There are many things that are great about Hong Kong. It’s a culturally vibrant place, teeming with things to do, people to see, and excellent urban and natural scenery. Life here goes on, however, under a nearly-perpetual blanket of polluting haze.
Hong Kong is infamous for its heavy air pollution, a problem which has persisted for decades and has had a major impact on the lives of people living and working in the region. The air pollution here, to be frank, is absolutely terrible, violating World Health Organization recommendations and far surpassing that of most cities in the US.
Many of the urban areas, given the history of the development of Hong Kong, are densely populated, leading to buildings which are clustered together with almost no ventilation between them. When walking around in these urban canyons, the difference in air quality is staggering. What could otherwise be fine air becomes a brew of diesel fumes and construction dust, trapped with little hope of escape through anything besides lungs and other vehicles. It makes standing on a street filled with old buses and older high-rises difficult at times. If you don’t believe me, find a bus as it rounds a nearby corner and feel the burn from the exhaust in your nose.
The haze and acrid smells are as dangerous as they are unpleasant. Going outside on a bad day can make eyes burn and throats itch. The particles from the haze, too small to be coughed up, can damage the lungs and aggravate respiratory ailments among people living or staying in Hong Kong. For the least fortunate, the pollution even kills: a study from Hong Kong University estimated that air pollution contributed to the deaths of 1,200 people annually between 2007 and 2010.
Often, the people who are hurt most by the pollution are those on the ground. Living and working at higher elevations is a status symbol in Hong Kong. Those who are higher up in both status and altitude have the advantage of breathing less of the roadside pollution, which sits relatively close to the streets. The people who are stuck at lower levels are also stuck with the pollution, and I’m sure they’ve dealt with the burning feeling of inhaling bus exhaust far more than I have.
While it may seem that Hong Kong is responsible for all of its air pollution, this is not so. During the colder months, winds from the north blow fine dust—mostly from manufacturing and electricity generation—down from the mainland, adding to the gray haze that permeates the territory. It’s then that the pollution is at its worst, since both the pollution Hong Kong itself produces and the mainland pollution sit together, stewing in the streets and lungs of the people of Hong Kong.
The heavy pollution drifting in from the mainland creates many difficulties for the government of Hong Kong, which has made some (though arguably not enough) strides in cleaning the air. Sulfur dioxide levels have dropped as a result of stricter fuel standards, and all taxis and many minibuses now run on liquefied petroleum gas instead of diesel. There is much less, however, than the government can do about pollution drifting in from hundreds of miles away.
Seeing and breathing the pollution coming from the mainland is a sobering experience. In the simplest sense, it isn’t the fault of me or the people of Hong Kong that it drifts across the border. However, environmental issues are rarely simple. Much of the rampant and polluting industry in mainland China feeds the consumer appetites of people across the world, including myself. Usually, the impacts are invisible to us, but here one can truly see a small portion of the end results of a consumer lifestyle.
Perhaps what strikes me most as I walk along the street is the suffering some of the people I see must endure because of the air. Men and women, usually older, push carts filled with trash to sell directly alongside diesel trucks and buses. Advertisers hold up signs and hand out pamphlets on the sidewalks while high-end cars rush by, leaving only a cloud of exhaust. Despite my complaints about the air here and concerns for my own well-being, I know I can leave. I can simply fly off to greener pastures. These people can’t do that.
Their work on the streets will continue long after I leave Hong Kong, despite the choking emissions from vehicles and insidious dust from US-bound goods being manufactured. As I ride the buses and buy goods, however sparingly, I can’t help but wonder what role I and the people around me play in polluting the air in Hong Kong and hurting those most exposed to it. It’s a complex question, to be sure, but one which I can’t keep out of my mind as I struggle to see across the harbor through the haze.
Coming up next week:
Adventures in food and drink in Hong Kong.