Blight of light: Why Hong Kong’s neon haze isn’t going away soon
Green groups and a lawmaker say lack of strong rules on outdoor displays mean there has been little improvement over a decade, causing problems for residents and animals
As her train leaves Hong Kong International Airport for the city centre and passes one street light after another, Sally Law looks through the carriage window and is dazzled by the city’s skyline.
From now until Lunar New Year, the harbour shines even more brightly than usual; buildings along both waterfronts are dressed up with festive lights to boost the holiday spirit.
But the festive fluorescence has its downsides, with possible adverse effects on the environment and public health. And green groups have warned the lights might be approaching overkill.
“Starting from November, these holiday lights will stay on every night,” Roy Tam Hoi-pong, chief executive of Green Sense, says. “At least 50 per cent of public and commercial buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui have Christmas lights on their exteriors. And they will get even brighter during Lunar New Year.”
Law said the decorative lights on buildings fascinated her most when she first moved to Hong Kong from Australia. But the longer she stays, the more she realises it’s a problem.
“The night lights interrupt my sleep,” says the 22-year-old musician, who has been living in the city for four months.
Law, who used to live in Brisbane, says her flat in Fortress Hill, on Hong Kong Island, is usually lit up late at night by neon signs nearby and even external lights from commercial buildings from the other side of the harbour, in Tsim Sha Tsui.
She says the problem is due to her living near the harbour; the bright light from across the water reflects and casts into her home. The night light means she sleeps later than usual.
“I came from the countryside of Brisbane where the area is very quiet and dark at night. But it’s a totally different story in Hong Kong,” she says.
Law is not alone. A Legislative Council document from July this year shows the government has been receiving increasing numbers of complaints relating to light pollution – a problem which environmentalists and a lawmaker say is long-running and shows “no signs of improvement over the past few years”.
And more light could be on the way. Last month the city’s popular tourist attraction A Symphony of Lights – dubbed the largest permanent light and sound show in the world by Guinness World Records – was upgraded for the first time in 14 years, featuring new installations and additional LED boards that organisers claim will consume less energy than the previous version.
Last year the Environmental Protection Department received 337 complaints about light pollution, mainly about lighting from shops and signboards – up from 256 in 2015, and 229 in 2014.
Sleepless in the city
“Light pollution means excessive artificial outdoor lighting,” says Dr Jason Pun Chun-shing, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s physics department, who has been studying the issue for more than 10 years. “In Hong Kong, the pollution is usually from street lights and decorative lighting.”
Pun, part of HKU’s Hong Kong Night Sky Brightness Monitoring Network (NSN), says that according to a 2013 study by the network, Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular shopping district, has been the most light-polluted.
That study found that the night sky in Tsim Sha Tsui from 8.30pm to 11pm is on average more than 1,000 times brighter than the international standard for a dark sky, lit up by a “large number of signboards and floodlights nearby”.
Pun says the excessive commercial lighting could have adverse effects on the environment and ecosystem. They can include birds distracted by buildings in urban areas would dying in collisions with windows, and nocturnally migrating birds getting disoriented and trapped by lights at night.
Pun says one of the reasons why the city faces a serious problem of light pollution is because Hong Kong has yet to regulate commercial lighting. He also warns that light pollution harms human health by disrupting sleep patterns. And that is a problem that “not many people are aware of”.
“Light is the primary time giver for the circadian rhythm [which dictates sleep patterns] in humans,” says Dr Esther Lau Yuet-ying, assistant professor at Education University’s psychology department. Lau explains that light influences the production of melatonin, a type of hormone that alters sleep patterns.
“Exposure to light in the evening would delay the circadian clock. Similarly, exposure to light in the early morning would advance the circadian system,” she says. “Not only the timing, but also the intensity and spectral composition of light has been found to impact sleep patterns.”
Citing a 2016 Korean study, Lau points out that scientists have proved there is an association between insomnia and outdoor artificial light at night, although the relationship was only observed in people aged between 47 and 70.
Lack of regulation
“I don’t really know where I should go to complain, or whether the problem could be solved by complaining, because there’s no regulation,” laments North Point resident Aster Lam Miu.
Lam, an entrepreneur in her 50s, says her flat is usually brightly lit at night by the external lighting fixtures from two commercial buildings which belong to China Life and Cheung Kei Group across the harbour in Whampoa, Kowloon.
Lam says the lack of regulations means she and her family will have to continue to be deprived of sleep every night.
“The light makes me feel nervous whenever I am home,” Lam says. “I believe I am not the only one in the neighbourhood that is affected by the strong light.”
A China Life spokeswoman says their animated neon signs are switched off at 10pm every night and that they had recently lowered the brightness.
A Cheung Kei Group spokeswoman says their lights are also off at 10pm every night. “Regarding the complaint, we will adjust the lighting appropriately and within our discretion,” she said.
Dim light at the end of the tunnel?
Bright lights have a history in Hong Kong, once famed for its glowing neon signs, symbols of the city’s vivacity during an era when the then British colony was known at the “Pearl of the Orient”. Many of those distinctive signs are now gone, as neon increasingly gives way to LED lights. And there is at least some acceptance that light pollution should be curbed.
Last year, the government launched the voluntary Charter on External Lighting. The charter invited anyone responsible for outside lights used for decoration or advertisement switch them off between 11pm and 7am to “minimise light nuisance and energy wastage”. More than 4,800 properties and shops have signed up to the charter so far.
But Tam from Green Sense, says that is not enough and believes mandatory regulation would be far more effective.
Tam, who has been following the issue for more than 10 years, says the city has shown “no sign of improvement” in the past decade. “I think the government is not committed to combating light pollution.”
“Our demand is very humble,” he says. “We just want commercial lighting to be regulated. I think not having neon lights blasting through the night after 11pm doesn’t mean Hong Kong is no longer the ‘Pearl of the Orient’”.
Echoing his views, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who represents Kowloon West in the Legislative Council, admits light pollution is a “long-running problem”.
Leung says dozens of residents from Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui had complained to her about how the neon signs and light boards affect their sleep. She says regulation is the way forward and that she will consider submitting a motion to Legco.
An Environmental Protection Department spokeswoman says the government “has been sparing no efforts in tackling the light nuisance and energy wastage that may be caused by external lighting. As it takes time for the charter to gather momentum and for the government to refine the charter in the light of the experience gained, we will assess the effectiveness of the above measures about two to three years after the launch of the charter.”
Additional reporting by Rachel Leung
Switching off: How cities around the world have dealt with light pollution
Shanghai, mainland China
The anti-light pollution law in one of China’s richest cities, known for its vibrant night life, stipulates that external lighting “should not affect the normal living of nearby residents”, and empowers officials to bring an end to any nuisances. According to the regulations there, anyone who breaks the law will be given warning first but could face a fine under 1,000 yuan (HK$1,182) for “slight cases”.
Seoul, South Korea
Seoul’s light pollution prevention law, implemented in 2015, aims to tackle pollution by giving local governments the power to designate environmental lighting zones, and businesses that don’t abide by the standards could face a fine of 3 million won (HK$21,544). But there is a five-year grace period for artificial lights that were installed before the zones were designated.
In 2013, the “city of light” launched a law which required lights in shop window displays to be off by 1am. Interior lights in offices and non-residental buildings must be switched off an hour after the last employee leaves. Companies which break the law face a fine of 750 euros (HK$6,893) per night. The law is expected to cut carbon emissions by 250,000 tonnes per year.
The UK’s Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act put exterior lighting on a list of things that can be classed as a statutory nuisance. The act allows local authorities to take legal action against violators, who can face a jail term not exceeding five years or a fine of £50,000 (HK$459,591).