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The Greening of Hong Kong

Mentor of budding environmentalist movement combats `throwaway' consumer culture. A GENTLE VOICE

DESPITE his years as a vegetarian, organic farmer, and evangelist for ``Green Power'' in Hong Kong, Simon Sui-Cheong Chau still commits a few environmental sins. ``One of my indulgences is a warm bath,'' admits Dr. Chau. ``A bath uses five times the water a shower does, but I take one from time to time when I really need it.''

Chau also owns a facsimile machine, which he calls ``wasteful and polluting'' and uses ``poisonous'' typing correction fluid.

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``I could do without it,'' he says with an twinge of self-reproach.

Chau's wife, moreover, occasionally gives their school-aged son and daughter a few scoops of ice cream.

``I object to it,'' the bespectacled university lecturer says in earnest.

``People don't need dessert at all. I would prefer that they have papaya than something that comes from a factory.''

Yet despite his minor flings with prodigality, Chau on the whole practices what he preaches as the spiritual mentor of Hong Kong's budding Green movement.

By writing popular books like the recently published ``Green Thinking,'' hosting a radio and television show on environmental issues, lecturing, and writing a local newspaper column, Chau seeks to instill a love for nature in one of the world's most crassly materialistic cities.

``We have a very heavy diet of Westernization - hamburgers, jeans, Batman - primarily from America,'' Chau said recently over a meal of fungus, bean curd, and mushrooms at a Buddhist-run vegetarian eatery in downtown Hong Kong.

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``Hong Kong Chinese are culturally uprooted. We look to the West for the good life,'' he said above the rat-a-tat of jackhammers and din of traffic in the congested streets of Central District.

In hopes of cultivating the traditional Chinese reverence for nature, Chau reminds Hong Kong audiences that China's ancient Taoist and Buddhist sages believed harmony with Earth's elements was a source of spiritual enlightenment.

``It is all in the Chinese classics,'' Chau says. ``Two thousand years ago, our sages wrote: `Be happy with what you have.' Up until my father's generation, people were taught not to leave one grain of rice in the bowl. To do so was a curse.''

Today, Chau calls Hong Kong a ``throwaway'' consumer society.

He attributes the change in values to rapid industrialization, which has given Hong Kong the second-highest living standard in Asia, after Japan.

Moreover, he says apathy toward the environment has grown with despair over the future of the British colony, which reverts to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

``Hong Kong people don't listen when you say `Don't pollute,' because they don't think Hong Kong will survive,'' Chau says.

``They have given up. Polluting is a negative way of saying `So what?'''

Stubborn ``red tides,'' exhaust billowing from diesel trucks, and the clamor of giant construction sites are a few of the environmental ills that plague Hong Kong, one of the world's most densely populated cities.

Thousands of tons of floating plastic bags, bottles and other garbage clogging Hong Kong's once scenic coastline is a source of local puns over the territory's Chinese name, ``Xiang Gang,'' or ``Fragrant Harbor.''

To encourage Hong Kong people to ``think Green,'' Chau cofounded Green Power in 1988 to campaign against the deterioration of the environment.

The group, with a small membership of academics, clergy, journalists, and other professionals, has lobbied - unsuccessfully - against China's construction of a nuclear power plant at nearby Daya Bay and Hong Kong's new multibillion-dollar airport, to be built on the pristine Lantau Island.

But Green Power focuses its efforts on persuading Hong Kong's 5.7 million residents to lead less wasteful, more natural lives.

For example, the group has waged a campaign to persuade Hong Kong residents to cut down on their heavy consumption of the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) and use of plastic bags.

Hong Kong generates three times more plastic waste than any comparable city in Europe or America, according to a government-funded study.

At the New Year, Chau helped run a three-day camp for 200 people to mark the beginning of the 1990s at a village near the Hong Kong-China border.

The camp included classes in flower drying, pebble painting, recycling paper by hand, meditation, the Chinese breathing exercise taiqi, and cooking nutritious foods.

Chau also hosts a weekly, four-minute television show for children called ``The Green Craft Room'' and a radio program aimed at teaching housewives how to pollute less and keep their homes safe from harmful chemicals.

He receives roughly 100 telephone calls a day from people inquiring about topics ranging from acid rain to the ozone layer.

A year ago, Green Power founded an organic produce company, Produce Green Ltd., to grow vegetables, spices, and other foods for sale and to promote organic farming.

The company began farming on a tract of land in Hong Kong's northern New Territories in November.

While Green Power is not politically ambitious, it hopes to influence the new political groups emerging with Hong Kong's fledgling democracy movement.

``We don't plan to form a party,'' says the wiry Chau, wearing pale green pants, olive green running shoes, and a green backpack. ``But we have contacts with various politicians in Hong Kong. By making sure they are Green, we are getting what we want.''

Chau's devotion to ``Green thinking'' - a term he defines broadly to embrace ideas as diverse as feminism, alternative education, spirituality, and pacifism - began when he read Rachel Carson's ``The Silent Spring,'' a warning against insecticides, as a university student in the 1960s.

His environmental crusading soon overshadowed his earlier, childhood goal of entering the Roman Catholic priesthood. His father forbade him from entering a seminary as a youth.

While raising his daughter and studying for his PhD in Britain in the early 1980s, Chau became interested in the emerging Green movements in Western Europe and America. Five years ago, he returned to Hong Kong to spread the word.

A lecturer in translation at Baptist College, Chau bicycles to work from his home in the fishing village Taipo, where he lives with his wife, a sociologist, and their two children.

Shunning canned and processed food, the vegetarian family eats tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce from its own garden, which Chau usually cultivates for about two hours a day.

In his daily life, Chau practices rigorous thrift.

``I think it is sinful to use tissue paper,'' he says, for example. ``I use handkerchiefs.''

Striding past skyscrapers and fast-food shops on his way home from the riotous, exhaust filled streets of downtown Hong Kong, Chau admits that Green Power has a long way to go in brightening what he calls the city's ``gray civilization.''

``I am sort of an iconoclast,'' Chau says above the roaring traffic. ``But I don't get frustrated. This is our inheritance.''

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