Renowned Hong Kong polar researcher and photographer Rebecca Lee Lok-sze knows the exhilaration - and exasperation - of being years ahead of her time. The exhilaration has come in umpteen trips to what she calls 'the three polar regions' - the Arctic, Antarctica and Mount Everest. Dr Lee has explored and photographed these global-warming 'hot spots' since 1985, long before climate change hit the headlines. She has shared her wonder at the planet's white wildernesses with about 400,000 Hong Kong students, delivering her polar equivalent of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth slideshow many times each month. The exasperation, says Dr Lee, has been from a lack of progress with her decade-long campaign for Hong Kong to establish a polar 'wonderland-cum-museum' that would 'link the way we live now to the polar warming that threatens our future'. It would also attract tourists, she believes. So far, only cities on the mainland have taken up her idea. Yesterday, Dr Lee received the Medal of Honour from Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen for her 'exemplary efforts' in educating students on the importance of protecting and preserving the environment. 'At last, they are beginning to understand what I have been doing. That's a start,' she said. Dr Lee recently returned from a 76-day voyage as the only Hongkonger aboard the mainland research vessel and ice-breaker Snow Dragon, on the Third Chinese Arctic Expedition. She was startled by how far north they could go through the thinning sea ice. And she was dismayed at the sight of polar bears begging for food at the side of their ship. 'This was the first time we'd seen that,' said Dr Lee, a veteran of the first Chinese Arctic expedition in 1999. 'One bear scavenged through our research station on the ice looking for food. We had to chase another away with a helicopter.' At 65 and a cancer survivor, Dr Lee was the only card-carrying senior citizen on the voyage. Most other members of the 121-strong international team were super-fit twenty- and thirtysomethings, reflecting the gruelling nature of polar expeditions. Much has been written about Dr Lee's steely determination to raise awareness in Hong Kong of the need to protect the poles. It is a passion for which this grandmother, who raised two daughters on her own, has sacrificed career, wealth, and even her health. She says she is building 'an ice bridge' to the mainland, which she hopes will allow future generations of Hong Kong scientists and students to participate in China's polar research. In the process, Dr Lee has freely given her award-winning skills in photography, design and advertising to promote the mainland's scientific contribution to global knowledge of polar regions and climate change. Despite all this, the question she gets asked most is: What do the poles have to do with Hong Kong? According to Hong Kong Observatory director Lam Chiu-ying, the immediate link is Hong Kong's winter and summer monsoon winds. 'They are driven by the temperature contrast between the equator and the poles. You have to know the poles before you know what will happen in between the poles and the equator.' Mr Lam said changes in the polar regions affected everything from food supplies to the rising incidence of dengue fever in Hong Kong. 'We should not think just in terms of Hong Kong getting warmer because of global warming. We have to think in terms of the polar regions changing the weather pattern, and this weather pattern impacting on food supplies and health situations. We may think we are self-sufficient, but a city like Hong Kong really depends on things happening in faraway places, including the weather.' As for 'the third pole', Mr Lam said: 'If there were no Himalayan mountains, no Tibetan Plateau, Hong Kong would be a desert, just like Saudi Arabia, which is at a similar latitude.' The Himalayas block the moist monsoon winds, turning them east to bring moisture to southern China and the Yangtze River area, he explained. In 1997, Dr Lee established the non-profit Polar Museum Foundation to pursue her idea of creating a 'three poles' attraction in Hong Kong. She visited and studied other polar museums around the world. Soon after, she made detailed presentations of her concept to Ocean Park - believing it to be the natural home for an entertaining, educational polar display - but was turned down. While Hong Kong declined, entrepreneurs in northern China came looking for Dr Lee. Dalian Sun Asia Ocean World Co invited her to design and oversee the concept for a 'Polar World' within its Sun Asia ocean theme park, one of the city's major tourist attractions and a money-spinner, according to Dr Lee. 'I did it all free of charge just so the dream of a three-poles wonderland could have a chance of succeeding at least somewhere in China,' she said. Packed into Dalian's 20,000 square metre polar world, which opened in 2003, are a 'SnoFari', 'Arctic Trek', and 'Antarctic Fantasy', complete with real penguins and an Inuit cultural show. More recently, Shanghai, home of the Snow Dragon, set aside billions of yuan to upgrade and expand China's polar exploration and research facilities, said Dr Lee. The plan included construction of a government-funded polar museum near the research ship's berth. Dr Lee, who will help with the museum's design, said work would start soon. Aside from the obvious challenges of finding land and funding for such an initiative in Hong Kong, the Observatory's Mr Lam sees another hurdle. 'Many Hong Kong people have never seen the real countryside or wilderness because of the way they are brought up. A lot of adults you see nowadays never had geography beyond Form Three, so their connection with the natural world is tiny. They simply have no resonance with whatever Rebecca talks about,' he said. 'I think we really need a good museum in Hong Kong to let people have some idea about the natural environment, including the polar regions. It would help people to appreciate how we are linked to other parts of the world.' Dr Lee's idea for a polar museum in Hong Kong has also been lauded by eminent Chinese polar scientist and climatologist Qin Dahe, a key member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Professor Qin represented Chinese scientists at last year's ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to the IPCC and former US vice-president Al Gore. 'Because Hong Kong is an international city, it [the proposed museum] would attract thousands and thousands of tourists,' he said during a visit to the city this month. 'It could increase knowledge of climate change and teach people to protect the climate and the environment. I think [the idea] is very, very important for education. We can probably give her some of my own things to put in the museum.' Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying, who chairs the Climate Change Business Forum of the Business Environment Council, is another supporter. 'The good thing about having [such a] museum in Hong Kong is not so much related to climate change - though, obviously, the visual proof would be very powerful - but really to show Hong Kong people that there is a great and beautiful world outside the 1,000 sq km of Hong Kong,' Mr Leung said. 'Working and getting paid is important, but life shouldn't be all about work. I think it is about time our younger generation opened their eyes to see the world outside Hong Kong and to see what life could be, other than the life their parents have led.' Mr Leung said such a museum would raise Hong Kong's profile as a global citizen and increase its attraction to tourists. Businessman Roy Chung Chi-ping travelled with Dr Lee to Antarctica in 1993, and he sees commercial potential in a polar-themed attraction at which Hong Kong people could, for instance, experience extreme cold and thin air, 'walk on a glacier' and watch a simulation of the Northern Lights. 'In the coming two years, it will be very difficult to promote this, especially with the global financial crisis,' said Dr Chung, vice-chairman and executive director of Techtronic Industries. 'But we can prepare so that when the economy turns good, we know what to do.' While Dr Lee hopes a polar museum will one day be her lasting legacy here, others believe she has already made her mark. 'She is a very tough and skilled woman. She can really overcome all kinds of problems,' said Dr Chung, who witnessed Dr Lee's calmness during a life-threatening incident on their Antarctic trip. 'She has a very strong vision and is a pioneer in the environmental field.' Mr Leung sees Dr Lee as a role model for leading a fuller life. 'She is not driven by financial motives, and that is very, very rare in Hong Kong,' he said. For the Observatory's Mr Lam, Dr Lee is a 'lone wolf' in Hong Kong. 'Once in a while in human society, we have people who think they have glimpsed a truth and they are very persistent in trying to help others see the same truth,' he said. 'That is Rebecca. But I can understand why. It is because she has been to true wilderness.'