On a wing and a prayer
Last Sunday, Hong Kong's fourth solar cart race was held in Victoria Park. The race coincided with another - the District Board elections which weren't overly concerned with environmental issues (unless, of course, you count Yeung Wai-foon, the DAB's candidate, who stood in the Kennedy Town/Mount Davis constituency on a platform that promised action on the problem of 'wild dove discharge') and this was a matter of some lamenting by Friends of the Earth which organised the solar cart event and which, on December 4, will celebrate 20 years in Hong Kong.
'It's been very difficult,' sighed Mei Ng, Friends of the Earth's director, about the race sponsorship. 'We called up the Tourism Board and said, 'Can we make this like HarbourFest?' No', she added hastily, 'not Harbour Fest, but an annual international festival to attract tourists and investors in new technology. Why can't Hong Kong be the first Asian city to have a solar Grand Prix? This is my dream. But - no interest. They didn't even want to send someone to officiate.'
Shell, therefore, which has sponsored the race for the past three years, remained in pole position on the posters. Ecological purists may find this an unexpected, and faintly unholy, alliance (Friends of the Earth International, which doesn't believe in corporate sponsorship, no longer counts the Hong Kong branch among its member groups), but as Ng said, 'We always have this dilemma. Our philosophy is we'd rather light the candle than curse the darkness.'
No candles were necessary the day before, when the teams had gathered for a pre-race inspection, but it was a grey Saturday afternoon, noticeably lacking in solar energy (and girls, although one official had promised they'd be present as cheerleaders for the Sunday event). The boys from King George V School, the Solar Lions, were gathered around a cart that depicted the sun, the earth - a painting of Asia with a bauhinia to mark Hong Kong - and the ocean in harmonious relationship, awaiting the vehicle inspectors from the Transport Department. 'We had a few technical problems last year,' said Rupert Flowerdew who, along with Robert Footman, the Commissioner for Transport and one of the judges, had the most emission-free surname. 'We came... last, I think,' said chief designer Ching Sum-yuen. 'But we won the prize for most charitable donations. We raised HK$13,000.' That King George V would go on to win the same prize this year for only about half the money indicates how hard times are.
Not that it was all gloom. Like the Hong Kong government, one of the schools looked to the stratosphere as a distraction from earthly problems. 'Look at this one!' marvelled David Deacon, Transport Department Senior Motor Vehicle Examiner, during a discussion about safety standards. 'It must have been put together by scaffolders. That's wing-and-a-prayer stuff.'
He was right about the wing because the space shuttle-like structure being wheeled past looked like a big lantern on its side. It was made of bamboo covered in cloth and had colanders spouting red cellophane stuck on its tail. Meant to look like an ecologically-friendly Shenzhou V - the capsule in which Yang Liwei circled the globe last month - the structure was the creation of Aberdeen Technical School. When it was pointed out to Ivan Ng, chairman of the ATS science club, that Shenzhou V's fuel consumption alone made it possibly one of the most unenvironmental vehicles of the early 21st century, he replied, 'So we want a new edition! We want to give an idea to the Chinese government to improve the technology.'
The transport inspectors were having none of this. Rules state the driver must have unobstructed vision, and ATS had painted a Chinese flag over the critical point. The team wheeled the solar- Shenzhou back to the Cart Resting Area where Fung Chun-man ('Yang Liwei') climbed into his space suit (which included plastic tubing and a helmet made out of a deflated beach-ball covered in silver foil) as a diversion, and the support team began slicing a hole in the flag. This is technically a treasonable act. 'If we cut this, we will die!' cried one of the more impression- able boys, and began making strangling noises until a crowd gathered to take photographs of Fung.
Unfortunately, ATS came last in its category at the Sunday races. Ivan was philosophical: 'It's too heavy, the decorations make it too heavy.' They served their purpose though: the school won both the Earth Design Award and the Most Artistic Design Award. The sun had come out with solar vigour, which meant everything was more speedy than last year (when it rained) but the carts had to do their circuits under the eyes of several hundred St John's Ambulance Brigade members who were having their annual parade in an adjacent corner of Victoria Park. The alert, massed ranks, dressed in black (and the convoy of St John's ambulances prowling up and down behind), suggested that an accident of mammoth proportions was about to take place at any moment.
It didn't, although the Solar Lions did have a minor collision with Lee Heng Kwei Secondary School, whose cart was covered in sliced-up Coca-Cola cans. That was shortly after the judges had done their ceremonial lap. Dr Sarah Liao, a woman as well as Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works, won. She had the fastest cart, designed by Hong Kong University's Department of Mechanical Engineering (which took first prize with Hong Kong Electric in the advanced category).
Robert Footman was interviewed about the event by some school reporters; in a media example of renewable energy, he was then re-interviewed about the interview (Had they asked the right questions? What did he think of their performance?). 'It's all great fun,' he said, several times.
Halfway through the day, the Tappies, a non-profit organisation tap-dancing group, executed several exuberant routines on stage, fuelled, so they claimed, by solar energy. Other fuel was in evidence: McDonald's bags could be seen dotted round the solar circuit. When a rock band began performing, at painfully polluting levels, to three people sitting in the roped-off area, Mei Ng, who was parked in the shade, away from the solar rays, said, wistfully, 'I'd really like them to play the theme from Chariots Of Fire.'