Spirit of Hong Kong

Final conquest in sight for intrepid adventurer Rebecca Lee

Rebecca Lee found it easier to conquer the polar zones and Mount Everest than find a site for Hong Kong's first climate change museum

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:19pm

At a casual glance, a fish stored in Rebecca Lee Lok-sze's home could be a typical Hong Kong salted variety.

But it's actually preserved in formalin and comes from Antarctica.

It's a treasured memento for the former advertising executive, adventurer and documentary maker, who has been to the north and south poles 18 times and the Mount Everest area four times.

"I caught the fish in the winter of 2001 and wanted to take it back to Hong Kong," Lee says. "An engineer told me he could help - he preserved it with formalin."

The fish is now in a bottle until the Museum of Climate Change, of which Lee, 70, is the driving force, opens on the Chinese University campus, probably by the end of this year.

It will join tens of thousands of other mementoes from Lee's 30 years of travel to wild places, including photos and specimens.

Soon after her maiden expedition to the South Pole in 1985, the tireless adventurer decided to dedicate her life to exploring the poles.

She noticed that on each voyage, the ice was getting thinner, and she became determined to spread the word that the environment was in strife.

"Back in the 1980s, there were no digital cameras. I took along three manual cameras and 100 rolls of film every time I set off," Lee says.

"When I took those pictures, I had no idea how they'd turn out. I gradually learned to grasp all possible chances to shoot, because at the poles, if you miss something, if you miss a particular scene lasting a matter of seconds, that means you've missed it forever."

This inspired her belief, formed in 1987, that her collection needed a home, and that young people who knew little about climate change needed their horizons widened.

"I initially looked at a few sites in Beijing and found a feasible location in Zhongguancun that would have cost 20 million yuan (HK$25.1 million)," she says. "I got a design from Carl Ho that resembled the Pompidou. I kept redrawing the plans but in the end, it didn't eventuate."

In 1997, Lee established the non-profit Polar Museum Foundation, visiting and studying other polar museums around the world. Soon afterwards, she made detailed presentations of her concept to Ocean Park, believing it to be the natural home for an entertaining, educational polar display - but she was turned down.

Enterprises weren't supportive as they saw no economic benefit, while government organisations were the most difficult, with District Council members subjecting her to "interrogative style" questioning.

"What do you expect from people who have dollar signs in their eyes rather than arts?" Lee says.

As time passed, she began to fear that her plans would come to naught.

"At one point, I was really disappointed," she says of her struggle to sell her ideas to bureaucrats and businessmen. "I asked myself whether I should give up."

Thankfully she didn't, and eventually she won support from Chinese University vice-chancellor Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu and the Jockey Club.

Her dream was well on the way to becoming reality.

These days, Lee lectures at the Chinese University and is busy captioning 40,000 photographs.

Her dedication to the task is spurred by the fear that as she gets older, she might forget the many wonderful adventures she has had and will not be able to pass them on.

"I still remember exactly which position I took each of the pictures from; what ice I was on and which direction I was facing," she says.

With advancing years, Lee says she has lost interest in physically travelling to geographical extremes.

"I'm getting old. I don't have the sensitivity I once had," she laments. "I won't go to those places any more no matter how attractive they are. I'm seriously determined to set up the museum now. I must get it done."