Colourful oxides and complex carbon chains

I had to overnight in Hong Kong last night on my way to Mongolia. The weather was fine when I touched down and I noticed parked at the end of one of the runways were four jumbo jets belonging to Oasis Airways which went bankrupt last week after racking up losses of a billion Hong Kong dollars (about US$130 million).

I thought it somewhat ironic that Oasis was voted the World’s Best New Airline last year.

It would have been convenient to stay at the airport, but as the Regal airport hotel was quite expensive (I’d stayed there once before and it wasn’t good value for money), I had booked a hotel in Kowloon for the night. The clerk at hotel check-in desk told me that it was my “lucky night” as they were putting me into a harbour view room for the night. (I’d only booked a standard room, so I guess they must have been overbooked).

It was getting dark by the time I got up to the room, so I left it until the morning before I drew back the curtains. When I did, this is all I could see:

When I had landed yesterday, I had commented to the person sitting next to me that the air was better than I had seen it for a long time in Hong Kong – but I had spoken too soon. Hong Kong’s air pollution seems to be going from bad to worse – although I’ve experienced much worse in other parts of China. Reading the local papers whenever I pass through Hong Kong, I am not sure who is to blame. It was never like this ten years ago. Some reports blame it on the increasing traffic and the coal-fired power stations in Hong Kong, whilst others blame it on the factories in the Pearl River delta and the other industrial regions of Guangdong Province. But even those who blame it on Guangdong’s factories are quick to point out that many of those are owned by wealthy Hong Kong businessmen.

According to National Geographic News, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report published last year claims that air pollution triggers diseases that kill 656,000 Chinese citizens every year – an alarming figure despite China’s large population.

The WHO report identified the most damaging air pollutants as sulphur dioxide, particulates, ozone and nitrogen oxide. The report said that China accounts for about one third of the global total of these pollutants.

I recall reading several stories last year about an exodus of expatriates from Hong Kong – moving to the cleaner air of Singapore (although that isn’t much better when the wind blows the smoke across from the illegal slash-and-burn clearing of forests in Indonesia around the third quarter of the year). I certainly wouldn’t want to live in Hong Kong these days.

By the time I had breakfast and set out for the airport, the air had cleared quite a bit (as can be seen from the photograph below) but I was surprised when the taxi driver said to me “what a beautiful fine day it was.”

If the above is a Hong Kong taxi driver’s version of a “beautiful fine day,” then I guess he hasn’t been out of Hong Kong for a while to remember what a clear blue sky looks like. Perhaps it’s an indication that after a while people get so used to polluted air, that any day that is not like a pea-soup fog day classifies as a fine day.

PS added 31 May: I read a post by Donald Morrison in the IHT Globespotters Travel Blog a few days ago describing China’s air as “thick with oxides of many colours and complex carbon chains as yet unclassified.” I thought that was such an insightful description, I changed the title of this post, borrowing some of those words (I’d previously titled this post “Hong Kong’s disappearing harbour views” which wasn’t anywhere near as clever).

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