Alliance For a Beautiful Hong Kong

Protect Beautiful Hong Kong

By John Batten

The first inkling of summer’s arrival are the rains of May. It can be a time of unsettled weather; and, temperatures that should normally hover around 30°Celsius drop on rainy days to a relatively mild mid-20°Celsius. Heavy rain can signal danger. Hong Kong’s low-lying areas of the northern New Territories and such older areas as Shau Kei Wan and Sheung Wan may flood. On 24 May, the year’s first black rain warning was raised and a China Eastern Airlines airplane slowly slid across and off the airport’s runway just after landing, luckily with no serious consequences. There were the usual rainy-day car accidents due to slippery roads and low visibility. But, it is the potential of land slips after heavy rain that is the biggest danger at this time of year. Hong Kong’s worst land-based disasters and accidents are usually caused by land subsidence after heavy rain. Over the last thirty years the government has done an admirable job stabilising slopes and improving drainage throughout the city. But, intense development and overly-ambitious engineering can always exacerbate fragile slopes and unstable ground.

The notorious Mid-levels Exclusion Zone, a fault line of unstable slopes and underground water courses running down from The Peak, starts near the Central Police Station and runs across to Tung Wah Hospital in Sheung Wan. This area has seen some of Hong Kong’s worst land slides. The site of the old Institute of Education, now the King’s College Old Boys’ Association Primary School on Po Hing Fong in Sheung Wan, suffered one of Hong Kong’s worst landslides with the loss of 75 lives in 1925. And, exactly a year ago a section of one of the historic buildings inside the Central Police Station collapsed after a contractor’s error while renovating a wall and ceiling, coincidently after days of rain.

Growing up in Australia in the 1960s, it was common for me and other children to sing: “Rain, rain go away; come again another day.” But everything changed during the terrible 1967/1968 summer drought – water restrictions began, water was saved in buckets, showers banned and bath-water was recycled for washing clothes. Around us were the consequences of drought: seemingly endless hot days, dying trees, parched land and devastating bushfires. “Water, is taught by thirst”, the American poet Emily Dickinson sagely wrote; accordingly, we quickly changed our attitude – we appreciated water and, thought “please, any rain!”

My experience of water restrictions, of course, does not compare to Hong Kong’s in 1963 and 1964 with long lines of residents queuing for water, only supplied for four hours per day every four days. Imagine the boredom and frustration and lurking on the edge of the crisis were shady ‘entrepreneurs’ who privately supplied water at a much higher price at greater ‘convenience’, but only for those who could afford to pay.
That is long ago, memories are fading and rather than hearing firsthand stories of the notoriously long queues of people waiting to fill pots and buckets at roadside water taps, that time is now experienced through photographs. The story has also altered: rather than expressing the water crisis that it was, these photographs are more often seen – equally correct – as another example of Hong Kong’s irrepressible Lion Rock spirit.

Recent University of Hong Kong research shows that nowadays Hong Kong residents do not consider water conservation seriously. But, Hong Kong’s water supply is very fickle – relying on favourable rains to fill reservoirs from the water catchment areas of our country parks and supply from the mainland.

It was raining when I arrived at the ‘Tomorrow’ music festival at OCT in Shenzhen a few weeks ago. OCT is an old factory/residential area near the Window on the World theme park. Preserved are the older low-rise residential and factory blocks which have evolved over the decade into a fascinating art/design/café district. There are lots of trees, open spaces and pedestrian footpaths separated from roads – and speed humps ensure that cars travel slowly.

Rain was in the air for the entire weekend. And there is nothing better than walking in the rain surrounded by greenery. A canopy of trees gave lots of shelter and birds washed themselves in puddles. Before the concert, we had dinner at a Tibetan vegetarian restaurant, an exotic meal reflecting the ambience of the district; after the concert late-night cafés were scattered amongst the trees and older residential blocks. Even a rough concrete copy of Michelangelo’s David’s head was sprouting green foliage (see photo)!

We should not be complacent. Fresh water is unevenly distributed around the world. The only countries with sufficient fresh water supplies for their own populations are Russia, Canada, Indonesia, Brazil, Congo and Colombia – all the rest, including China, are vulnerable….So, enjoy the abundant rainy season and Hong Kong’s green areas that supply fresh water!

DSC03118johnBcropJohn Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group


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