Who let the dogs out?
Noise pollution is an issue in any city, but in HK there are steps we can take to resolve this problem, writes Elizabeth Horscroft
When Kristi bought her 1,000 sqft flat in Mid-Levels she hoped it would be a peaceful oasis in the city. But escaping noise in Hong Kong is not as simple as closing the front door.
For two years the corporate attorney was tormented by the blaring sounds of the television from the flat downstairs, especially when she tried to sleep. The elderly woman and her daughter who lived there shouted telephone conversations and Kristi could hear every word - even at 3am.
Unable to tolerate it any longer she asked the building's management to intervene. Still the couple refused to lower the volume. In fact, they denied the noise was coming from their flat.
Kristi then had the management stake out the flat in the early hours of the morning. Caught in the act, they still denied they were the source of the noise.
'It got so bad I offered to buy them a new television, carpet and headphones, anything to stop the noise,' said the 12-year resident of Hong Kong.
When those suggestions were ignored she began legal action. Their response was to claim her water pipes were leaking onto their ceiling. Concerned, she checked it and discovered the couple's blocked pipes were causing the problem.
With all options - and herself - exhausted and the dilemma of suing an old woman, Kristi packed it all in, rented a new flat last December and moved out.
'Imagine how I feel owning a flat I can't live in,' she said, obviously frustrated.
In a high density city such as Hong Kong noise and nuisance from our neighbours is a fact of life. According to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), not only cramped conditions, but previous poor planning and economic activity all contribute to noise pollution.
The good news is the EPD has many statutory controls in place on neighbourhood noises, and traffic and construction noise.
But, when it invades your home, you can only endure just so much. What can a person do?
Karaoke with surround sound
At first, even Kristi believed her downstairs neighbour's denials. But after listening at the door she quickly confirmed it was them.
Interestingly, although averse to suing, she did have a case. According to the EPD's Noise Control Ordinance (NCO) Section 5, it is against the law to play or operate a musical instrument, record player, radio, television or any device for magnifying sound that is a source of annoyance to anyone.
An 'annoyance' defined by the NCO means one '... that would not be tolerated by a reasonable person'. Kristi did the right thing to involve the building management, but if issues cannot be settled amicably, you can involve the police or an EPD officer.
Contrary to the belief there is no need to record or measure the sounds. However, generally the officer must witness the person being annoying to prosecute successfully. The maximum fine is HK$10,000.
The police are normally called in these cases, according to an EPD spokesman. Again, there is no need to measure the noise levels. Once they understand the reason for the loud behaviour, and sometimes there isn't one, the officer will give the offender advice for dealing with the situation.
'Should the [yelling] continue without any good reason after the advice on noise minimisation has been given, the police officer will take measures by issuing a summons in due course,' he said. They could be liable to a fine of HK$10,000.
Some of the most unnatural sounds hail from building renovations - and produce a noise so irritating one contributor to a local website admitted to storming into the offending flat, tearing a hammer from a hapless worker's hands and leaving with it.
His actions effectively stopped the renovations for two days, he wrote. And then it started again. His problem, of course, was that it is perfectly legal to make construction noise between 7am and 7pm, even without a construction noise permit.
The EPD, which has authority in these matters, advises homeowners to first seek the assistance of the estate management to help settle disputes. If you want peace you need to ask for it, nicely.
However, it also behoves the renovators to be flexible with their neighbours' requests. In many situations, the owners' corporation or estate manager has house rules restricting construction or renovation work in their estates under the Deed of Mutual Covenant. For example, some buildings only allow renovations during the more sociable hours of 9am to 5pm.
If your annoyance comes from mechanical equipment being used outside the allowed hours, on Sundays or public holidays, and there is no construction noise permit, then the person making the noise is committing an offence. In that case, you are advised to call the police or the EPD hotline. On first conviction the fine is HK$100,000, rising to a fine of HK$200,000 for subsequent convictions.
One caveat: The EPD website says that the big builders in Hong Kong tend to treat fines for noise offences as a cost of doing business. If that is the case, with their deep pockets, even our best laid plans for reducing noise pollution will go out the rattling window.
A quick scan of a local expat website revealed more than one dog owner keeping multiple pets. One person reported that a neighbour kept eight in the adjacent flat - sometimes in cages or sometimes on rooftops and balconies all day without exercising them. Of course, dogs in that situation are going to bark - a lot. So what is a neighbour to do? Again, most complaints of this nature can be effectively and efficiently dealt with by the estate management.
'Otherwise, they may make a report to the police who will go to the scene and deal with the complaint,' a police department spokesman said.
In the case of noisy animals, police officers may administer a warning or take summons action. Again, the maximum fine that can be issued is HK$10,000.
Give peace a chance
To help reduce noise disturbances the EPD recommends we be considerate to our neighbours by keeping the TV or hi-fi at a low volume, shutting our doors and windows if engaging in noisy activities and not pursuing these activities at night. Whatever the annoying behaviour, while researching this story countless versions of the same attitude cropped up. 'I had to listen to/look at/tolerate it, now it's my turn.'
Case in point - despite Kristi's negative experience she understands that not all neighbours are inconsiderate. But, she contends, she'll have the last laugh. 'I begin renovations on my new flat soon and revenge is sweet,' she said.