Hong Kong should ask itself if it wanted to keep its reputation as the Pearl of the Orient when it considers imposing more regulations to fight light pollution.
That's the opinion of veteran advertising agent Dr Mak Siu-tong, who is also one of the people deciding what, if anything, should be done about the issue.
'New York's Time Square, Tokyo's Ginza and London's Piccadilly all have bright and flashing advertising signboards but people in these places, despite their advances in protecting the environment, never complain about it,' Mak said.
The Convey Advertising chairman was recently appointed to the 19-member task force on external lighting formed by the Environment Bureau in the wake of a campaign by environmentalists. The task force - which will meet for the first time on Wednesday - will work out issues relating to specifications and technical standards of outdoor lightings and, most importantly, whether a law to curb light pollution is needed.
Mak, whose company runs about 1,000 billboards across Hong Kong, has seen advertising evolve from still images illuminated by incandescent lightbulbs to LED screens of moving images erected on rooftops. He admits he only started recently to think seriously about light pollution.
'Hong Kong is always bright when you look down from an aeroplane. You can't differentiate between Tsuen Wan and Shau Kei Wan as they are similarly illuminated and that's why the city is termed the Pearl of the Orient,' he said.
Unlike overseas cities where there was often a single landmark or commercial district, Hong Kong's layout where mixed land uses were common also made it difficult and impractical to introduce zoning restrictions on outdoor lighting, Mak said.
The veteran agent, who introduced the first roadside electronic billboard in Causeway Bay in the mid-1990s, said some decorative lights on buildings were much brighter than advertising lights.
He also said some giant LED rooftop signboards - which had proliferated thanks to lower costs and better quality - were unnecessarily switched on at full brightness during the day. 'You can't beat the sun. Why waste the energy?' Mak said. 'Even at night, a third of full brightness is plenty to make people take notice,' he said, without naming specific buildings.
Mak also rejected suggestions that advertising agents would compete on brightness to win business.
'Competition on brightness does not exist and makes no sense at all since the cost of increasing the brightness is disproportionately higher than the extra benefits,' he said.
While there was no agreed standard among agencies on the brightness levels or amount of lighting for large billboards, Mak said his company had in-house rules that its contractor used to calculate how powerful a spotlight or floodlight should be in illuminating a certain size of billboard.
In the firm's headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui with its windows blocked by billboards, Mak would not comment on the district's lighting landscape, which has upset some residents.
'I am a sales agent and of course I want more people to notice our messages ... but someone might have to close their curtains,' he said.