Dad loved the Olympic Blue Hong Kong

Pius Chi-Shing Lee

(Clipart: author and father)

Hong Kong’s population had increased roughly five hundred times since China’s defeat in the Opium War in 1842. For me, it is an ambivalent emotion when I think about the British rule over Hong Kong for over a hundred fifty years between 1842 and 1997. In terms of air pollution and its local and regional impact, Hong Kong had served as a microcosm of experiments.

A Fishing Village — Before It Was Called Hong Kong

Hong Kong was a sleepy fishing village. It was pristine against external influences and laid-back in economy before 1839. It seemed that this southernmost village of the Canton Province had been frozen in time for millennia. The immediate previous external jerk there was the invasion of the iron hooves of the Mongol cavalry in the pursuit of Zhao Bing (趙昺), the last emperor of the Song Dynasty in 1279. Legends had it that he took off his royal gown at a beach before committing suicide — drowned offshore a peninsular opposite the Hong Kong Island. The local folks commemorated the beach with a monument called the Song Emperor Terrace (宋皇臺). The local folk also called the peninsular “Kowloon”, meaning nine dragons (九龍) in Chinese due to the royal gown was embroidered with nine dragons. Since that dramatic final collapse of the Song Dynasty, the sleepy village held its lethargic posture for another six centuries. The pounding of cannons of the Opium War between China and the United Kingdom (UK) in 1839 shocked the tiny Hong Kong Island and Kowloon from its lethargy. The UK colonized both the two places. The UK leased the New Territory (NT) in1899 for one hundred years. The NT is a sizable swath of adjacent land seven times that of the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon combined.

Hong Kong’s Populace

The deep-water Victoria Channel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island was an ideal haven for warships, ocean liners and cargo ships. Aberdeen and Causeway Bay situated at either ends of the channel on the island gradually became favorite docks for sampan and fishing boats of the indigenous fishing population. With the Five Open Ports Treaty in 1844, western goods and trade gained unfettered access to China in five ports, including Hong Kong, in Southern China. Hong Kong was probably the most westernized among them due to a complete British rule. By the same token, many fled there for safety during China’s wars with the many foreign powers during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. By 1937, on the eve of Japan’s full-fledged invasion into China, Hong Kong already had a population of 1.5 million inhabitants.

My Father Loved Hong Kong

Fook-Hoi Lee (李福海), my father (dad), immigrated to Hong Kong from Guangzhou (廣州) as a teenager in the 1930’s. He was an apprentice of a sheet metal workshop specializing in kerosene lanterns for the boat people. He never had a childhood as he was the only surviving child of my widowed grandmother (何雪卿) who lost her husband (李德林) when she was rather young. Grandma could speak some English, and worked as a nanny in the British expatriate mansions in the Victoria Peak of the Hong Kong Island. Dad learned to be extremely quiet and gentle. He was absolutely honest. Dad married mom (葉娣) as WWII waned when he was twenty-two through an arranged marriage in their home-villages. Soon after their wedding, dad joined the National Army defying mom’s objection. Dad belonged to the 454th Regiment, 152nd Division, and 63rd Army under Major General Chan Jiang (陈章). Dad proudly shared with me that he attained the rank of Lieutenant secretariat when the army marched to Hunan Changsha (长沙).

The devastation of WWII winded the technological and economic clock of the colony backwards for decades. However, with the influx of elite refugees from Communist China in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, it gave her a huge windfall of brain power, financial assets, entrepreneurs and survivors’ tenacity. Dad’s profession of sheet metal work dwindled as utensils and appliances became mass-produced in factories. Dad became unemployed. Mom came to dad’s rescue by organizing a BBQ duck and pork joint venture with relatives, friends and neighbors. It turned out that the venture became dad’s retirement job that lasted 30 plus years of his career. The shop was in Kowloon and our country-side home was in the NT. It took dad 2 hours and a rough mountainous bus-ride over Tai Mo Shan (大冒山) to come home. Dad stayed in the dormitory of the shop where it also stored coal and spices. Dad only came back and spent one-overnight home once every two months to see mom and his five children. Mom did embroidery at home after the kids went to bed to make extra income to support our education. These were the assets of Hong Kong — everybody excelled in entrepreneurism and survivors’ tenacity.

Tai Mo Shan (大冒山)

Dad and Mom Were Baptized

Dad retired in the 90’s and he abhorred idleness and made fruit picking trips with his friends to Mainland to pass time. Dad seldom spoke but he knew much. He did not lie and never boasted. Nonetheless, no human righteousness can justify in front of God. Mom and I invited dad to travel with us to Taiwan for excursions as we had so much fun the previous times. Dad was thrilled at heart but showed a placid face to disguise his delight. I firmly believe that spiritual bondage was geographical and ritual. Plucking dad out of his routines and leaving his beloved Hong Kong liberated him from such a bondage. During the trip dad considered life’s purpose and destiny. Dad was relaxed and rejuvenated. We talked about our childhoods. Dad knew it could take a bulldozer that could move Tai Mo Mountain in a single swoop to save his prodigal son, me, from depravity. So was he. His self-righteousness bankrupted in front of the great God Jesus when he witnessed the purity and unconditional love of Jesus’ crucifixion to pay his sin-debt. Dad prayed the conversion prayer and confessed to Jesus as his Savior and Lord. Years later, dad and I participated in a church musical and he wrote on his guest-response note for first-time-comers that: “I am a born again Christian”. That was an honest proclamation from dad. Praise be to the good Lord Jesus. On July 7th 1991, mom and dad were baptized.

Hong Kong Missed out on Blue Skies

The survivors’ mentality and hard-working of the people in the 1960’s-1970’s propelled Hong Kong into one of the little economical dragons of Asia before the turn of last century. This glory came with a steep cost. The factories and the container ports of the Kowloon Peninsula and the west-side industrial towns did large environmental harm to the landscape, groundwater, and air. As a child growing up in the west-side of the NT, to get to downtown Hong Kong one had to climb Tai Mo Shan and pass many west-side industrial towns. Textile, paint, electrical appliance factories were clustering along the highway. Roads were under perpetual widening and construction cranes were erecting skyscrapers everywhere. As I was taking a bus-ride to town in the 70’s, I could smell and see the air-divide from clean air to brownish dirty air as the bus crossed the Tai Mo Shan Mountain top. The air became suffocating and dusty. Even though there was sunshine on the NT side, it would be predictably gloomy and foggy on the Kowloon side. The sun-dimming effect was localized in the colony in the 70’s due to air pollution from cars, ships and factories. Airplanes landing and taking off at Kai-Tak Airport in the middle of downtown Hong Kong caused a large amount of pollution. These pollutants caused a perennial brownish smog over downtown Hong Kong due to localized air stagnations resulting from the complex interactions of the sea, land and street canyons. The localized sun-dimming effect became wide-spread as the air pollution condition deteriorated in the 80’s and 90’s. Hong Kong was shrouded by industrial smog for months on end. People missed out on blue skies altogether.

In the 80’s and 90’s, due to the availability of skilled labor and less restrictive environmental laws in Mainland China, factories in Hong Kong moved northwards into the mainland in large numbers. Inadvertently, the colony moved air pollution northwards to the mainland. Noticeably in the beginning of this millennium, clean oceanic air prevalent in summers finally occasionally cracked the decades of industrial smog. However, winters were less promising as polluted air in the mainland was transported southwards by seasonal zonal flow to Hong Kong. Nonetheless, the trend of the sky clearing up became more noticeable in all seasons and lasted longer. In summer 2014, I flew to Hong Kong from Japan in an afternoon and realized that I could see the sun throughout my downtown inbound train ride from the airport. It was the Hong Kong blue sky. I had been missing that. Ironically, in those few days, Beijing had one of its most sun-diming air pollution instances. In fact, much of Northern China had severe air pollution problems. Hong Kong was not the reason. She is over 2000 km away from Beijing. However, unbridled industrialization and neck-breaking urbanization in northern China deprived the residents of their blue skies.

Olympic Blue

Beijing saw blue skies during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Extreme measures were enforced to curb air pollution weeks before and weeks into the event. It was so outstanding and obvious — observable by satellites in outer space, that the anomaly was coined Beijing’s “Olympic Blue”. Hong Kong enjoyed her own version of “Olympic Blue” solely due to economic reasons — “pay” polluters to move elsewhere. Kicking the pollution football northwards was hardly a good solution. “Olympic Blue” should not exist in the first place as blue skies and sunshine are our birthrights. Man was delegated by God to be conscientious and competent stewards on Day the 6th Day — a high order man should not forget: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

Author: Pastor Dr. Pius Lee is the Director of the Development Division of NYSTM. In 2021, he retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States, and was selected the winner of NOAA’s Administrator’s Award for the Air Pollution Forecasting Research Group in 2020. Pastor Lee and Mrs. Ancy Thuyen-Anh, Lee have three sons and one daughter. The couple relocated from the capital, Washington, to New York to take up the post.

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