Under the Hong Kong dome: A cry for action on pollution

Kelly Yang says without real commitment from our leaders, Hong Kong will have no success cleaning up its perpetual smog

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 1:57pm

Dear Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing and Undersecretary for the Environment Christine Loh:

I lie awake at night listening to the sound of my children coughing. I cannot sleep. I can hardly breathe. Every day, my eyes are glued to the air pollution app on my phone. Every hour, it seems, that number climbs: 100, 150, 170… It steals from me that which I can never get back: the lost opportunities of long walks with my children, bike rides around the park, jogs on the beach. On those days, every minute my children are outside in the choking air, my heart races. Every breath is a worry; every laugh a fear.

I watched Chai Jing's heart-breaking documentary Under the Dome, on air pollution in China. I want to think, "Thank God, that's not here". Instead, I think, "My God, it's here too". I no longer look forward to weekends. I don't even want to look out of the window, scared of what I might see. My children jump up and down - "Mummy, mummy, let's go out!" - while the phone in my hand screams, "Danger! Far exceeds World Health Organisation Safe Levels".

Is it China, I wonder? Is it all the private cars? Or is it the marine emissions that are polluting our air? According to the Clean Air Network, levels of sulphur dioxide exceeded the WHO annual guideline at all monitoring stations last year, except Tai Po. We need mandatory switches of fuels for shipping companies, not just voluntary schemes, and we needed it yesterday. We need to limit private cars, and we need to say to Guangdong, "Enough already - let's curb emissions together".

Recently, I was talking to a guy at dinner about the air pollution problem. He turned to me and hissed, "Don't be such a pussy." My mind boggled at his choice of words. I looked him in the eye and said, "Wake up and smell the CO2!" His response? "Yeah, well, what can you really do about it? It is what it is."

But it doesn't have to be.

Christine, years ago, I met you at an event. It was before you became undersecretary for the environment. You were speaking to a roomful of secondary students about the importance of environmental protection and how one person can make a difference. I was very moved by your speech. Afterwards, I asked you whether you really meant it, whether you think serious change really is possible. You said absolutely. With the right leadership, we can clean up the air pollution like that. And then you snapped your fingers.

Well, Christine, now you are the leadership. You and Mr Wong and all your colleagues. It's time to start snapping fingers. When the air is so bad, we can't even see Kowloon from Hong Kong Island. Every night, I have to get up in the middle of the night to administer the nebulizer for my son because that's the only way he can get through the night. We need results.

And so I beg you: please snap your fingers. Let us breathe again. Let us walk outside with our minds at ease, so we can enjoy the city we so dearly love.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk