I lie to myself about pollution

I spent a year deluding myself that the Tai Po District of Hong Kong was (relatively) wholesomely clean. Then I hiked up Cloudy Hill on a ‘clear’ day and fully realized that China’s industrial epicenter — Shenzhen — had been just over my shoulder:

View of Shenzhen from Hong Kong (Tai Po)

View toward Shenzhen from half-way up Cloudy Hill in Tai Po (Hong Kong).

The small houses in the front, are “village houses.” Next back, the taller apartment blocks, are in Fanling, which is still in Hong Kong. Then, squinting through the smog, the skyscrapers, are in Shenzhen, China.

Shenzhen had been there all along. Shenzhen, a city of 11 million (official) residents working in factories making all of the crap the world buys, is in my backyard.

Intellectually I knew that it was there, but the view from Cloudy Hill forced me to fully appreciate how close I am to China’s first “Special Economic Zone” and industrial engine of growth.

And forced me to appreciate its impact on air quality. Standing on Cloudy Hill, but looking away from Shenzhen and towards Hong Kong’s Sha Tin and Sai Kung districts, one still sees haze, but also a lovely blue patch in the sky:

View from Cloudy Hill, Tai Po toward Ma On Shan

View toward Ma On Shan (eastern New Territories) from Cloudy Hill in Tai Po.

Both of these pictures were taken within minutes of each other.

In Tai Po, I am certainly lucky to miss out on the higher levels of roadside pollution that exist in Central and Kowloon. The pollution readings in Tai Po are generally better than either of those areas.

But my hike up Cloudy Hill forced me to realize just how close I am to the manufacturing heartland of China. It seems I’ve swapped breathing bus fumes for breathing industrial emissions.

The border between Hong Kong and Mainland China is stark. The Hong Kong side is relatively rural, mountainous and green — the key to my delusion of wholesomeness. Just over the border, however, is instant urban jungle:

Source of satellite image: Google maps.

Border between Hong Kong and Mainland China. (Source of satellite image: Google maps.)

It’s not hard to tell where the border is, is it?

Of course Tai Po is still cleaner than my former home of Zhuhai, a Chinese city whose sunset’s glowed a gorgeous orange-y red from industrial pollution:


Zhuhai, China in 2005. (Photo source: my mom, Linda Brown)

For now, I’ll comfort myself with the knowledge that we’re entering the side of the year with relatively low air pollution. (With thanks to Phil at “Hong Kong (and Macau) Stuff” for pointing this out.)

28 responses to “I lie to myself about pollution

    • It is sad. The only nice thing I can think to say is that at least the air is better here than in Beijing.

      I’m pretty certain the higher you are the more you pay, since, theory, you should be able to enjoy a nicer view (at least on “blue sky days”)…

  1. I feel guilty still about all the polluted places I dragged my son around. In Baku it was soil contamination and how it affected our food that bothered me. In Cairo, like Hong Kong, it was the air quality. Excellent post. We do lie to ourselves.

    • When we were in Cambridge, UK for three years my then-3-year-old immediately noticed how blue the sky was compared to Mainland China: “the sky is blue! the sky is blue mommy!” Expat life exposes children to many wonderful things, but pollution and food contamination are certainly the big (scary) down side.

    • The “greater city wide” air pollution here has been pretty good this week. Of course this is the week that the people with small farms in the area where I live decided to burn a bunch of stuff as part of a spring clean…. Can’t win.

      Sorry Shanghai has been grim. Hopefully your lungs are still revealing in the freshness of Singapore and Cambodia!

  2. Thanks for liking my broccoli juice post!

    Ah yes, over that border (this time, we’re talking about the place to the north) lies a city whose sole benefit might be the presence of regional Chinese restaurants. The rumors regarding those eateries, the ones about reused oil and various animals never known to have existed that somehow have gone extinct may not be claptrap, but I’d be loathe to say I didn’t 100% of the time prefer Hunanese eggplant with chilies over anything a cha chaan teng produces.

    You see, that pollution issue, whether from the cigarette butts or 工业区, isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon, so you might as well just eat.

    By the way, on your satellite map image, you’ll notice that there’s an area called Man Kam To. I’m not sure if it’s still open for public use, but that is an underutilized border crossing (used to take buses there from Shang Shui; infrequent, but never busy, particular for us Outer Country People). Really it would take more time just to pass through it if it was open, otherwise it’s a less common Chinese passport stamp.

    • We can always rely on you to find the more obscure juices and food stuffs of the world. Your canned “pancake juice” find is still the most revolting.

      Now that I think about it, good, cheap, regional Chinese food might be *the* reason to go to Shenzhen. Guess I’d better renew my visa.

      I didn’t know about the Man Kam To crossing until you mentioned it, but now I feel I’ve lived it via this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDV1crmLxz4

  3. I’ve been reading about the frightening off the chart AQI levels in the 600s from friends in Beijing and other parts of China, and I feel bad. Clean air is something that we take for granted in Seattle, and I forget how I used to spend a minimum amount of time outside while holding my breath in Hong Kong.

    • Beijing is truly, truly scary right now, right? Someone posted something the other day indicating that school kids hadn’t been allowed to go outside at playtime for many, many days in a row this winter because the AQI readings were too dangerously high. So, I suppose Honkongers can take cold comfort in it not being as bad as Beijing?

      My lungs will be happy with the break this summer in Seattle!

  4. Interesting post. I came across your blog when I was googling Tai Po 🙂 Planning to move to HK soon with my 2 year old twins… and checking out places to live now. Pollution is of course a key concern, but like you… I am lying to myself a little by saying that I will find the least polluted corner of HK to live in :S

    Do you enjoy living in Tai Po? Is it a good place for kids? Any thoughts would be helpful! THanks!

    • I do enjoy living in Tai Po, specifically, and the New Territories (NT), generally. (and the air is better than the more central districts). Other nice areas in the NT include Ma On Shan and Sha Tin (more high rising living, but more conveniently located) and Sai Kung (more houses). Sai Kung probably has the cleanest air, but it is also the most difficult to get to as there is no MTR out there.

      I think it’s a great area for kids, but I’m bias ;-). Feel free to email me with questions if you’d like (jenniferamybrown@gmail.com).

  5. Yes, I do agree – there’s nothing like a sunset caused by industrial pollution (and the smell of burning garbage first thing in the morning).

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