Hong Kong Faces

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 October, 2008, 12:00am

Cheung Sze-leung is among a rare breed. He is one of only a few people teaching astronomy in Hong Kong. Despite doubts from his family, he has managed to make a living from stargazing in a city of lights. He hopes others can also be touched by the wonders of the sky

Enthusiastic stargazers could stay awake for one whole night for a heavenly spectacle, but few in the city would be like Cheung Sze-leung, who picked astronomy as a lifetime career.

The 27-year-old is among only a few in the city who teach astronomy - one of the oldest sciences in human history - on a full-time basis. Mr Cheung is based at the Ho Koon Nature Education cum Astronomical Centre in Tsuen Wan, the only place offering astronomical education other than the government's Space Museum.

Despite astronomy not being a hot topic among Hongkongers, Mr Cheung is keen to share the wonders of the sky. In August, he led about 40 local teachers on an excursion to Xinjiang to catch a glimpse of the rarest of wonders - a solar eclipse - something they would never have the chance to see at home.

'As the Sun disappeared from view, all that could be seen were the rays of its dull yellow corona. The temperature dropped within minutes from 40 degrees Celsius to 26 as the darkness descended. People shouted, vehicle horns sounded and the Sun eventually climbed out from the shadows,' he recalled. 'It was such an amazing moment, with a magnificent coincidence,' he said with excitement. He was referring to the fact the eclipse was only visible on Earth.

While the eclipse is a wonder of nature, Mr Cheung said the mainland space mission, notably the success of Shenzhou VII, had drawn more public attention to his field. The spacewalk, he said, was a milestone for China's space odyssey. 'It is a very critical achievement as it demonstrates our ability to participate in space station projects, or even landing missions on the moon.'

It would eventually open possibilities for space tourism or migration to the moon, he said. 'It is no longer fiction, but a logical step in the process. It is going to be possible to build a lunar basement or a space station in which human beings can live. It will come true.'

A Mars expedition, in contrast, still had a long way to go as it was farther away. He predicted that we may have to wait a century if humans are to move to another planet.

Mr Cheung said Hong Kong people should be more aware of the wonders of space, but suggested that astronomical observation had been hampered by the city's lights. He said the government should consider a 'dark-sky preserve' where people can go to watch the night sky, adding that Sai Kung would be ideal. And more resources should be put into promoting astronomy. With only two places in Hong Kong providing education in astronomy, Mr Cheung said the city needed more centres.

The astronomy centre, run by the Taoist organisation Sik Sik Yuen, was operating at full capacity, with about 10,000 visitors annually, Mr Cheung said. Most of the visitors were students stargazing through telescopes for school activities or workshops.

But Mr Cheung remains optimistic that astronomy will become increasingly popular in Hong Kong. It will be included in the new senior secondary curriculum, while the University of Hong Kong has been offering astronomy majors for science students, he said. Providing courses and programmes that will expose youngsters to astronomy will help create an ideal environment for future enthusiasts.

Like many other enthusiasts, twinkling stars caught Mr Cheung's eye when he was in primary school. 'Looking up at the night sky, I started to wonder about the worlds beyond Earth and began my long journey to search for answers,' he said.

Majoring in physics at the University of Hong Kong, Mr Cheung said astronomy was his dream and he was devoted to the field, despite it being a fringe profession in Hong Kong.

'You cannot blame people for being realistic in Hong Kong,' he said, noting that his family had doubts about whether he could earn a living in astronomy. 'You need a strong belief [in what you are doing].'