Savio Fong’s fascination with all things celestial started when he was a child, watching television in his parents’ flat on the south side of Hong Kong Island. “I was about seven or eight years old when a cartoon on TV – I can’t remember the name of it – showed a father making a telescope for his son. I was fascinated and from that moment I wanted to get a real feel for the stars,” says Fong, now in his 40s. But Fong’s working-class parents could not afford a telescope, so he made his own. And in the pre-internet age, that meant countless trips to local libraries to dig up information on how to build one. His efforts resulted in a home-made contraption comprising a lens and rolled up piece of cardboard. The device cost him HK$20. “That was a lot of money back then – I had to save my allowance for a long time to buy it,” he says. From his bedroom’s balcony, Fong would aim his “very raw, very basic” telescope at the sky. But he was often left frustrated. “I could see the moon and some features on its surface, as well as a few moons around Jupiter, but I couldn’t see the rings of Saturn. I wanted more.” His love affair with the celestial had begun, and so had his flair for making telescopes. He became resourceful, finding scraps to construct his instruments. One place he sourced material from was Tseung Kwan O, in the southeastern New Territories. Today it’s a densely populated residential area, but from the 1960s until the mid-1980s, the district was known for its shipbuilding and ship repair industries. To Fong, it was a treasure chest. “Back then, Tseung Kwan O was a rural area. There were no high-rise buildings,” says Fong. It was here that he bought the thick circular glass once used in ship windows and upcycled it for his telescopes. At secondary school – he attended Aberdeen Technical School – Fong was lucky to have access to an astronomical society, a rarity in schools. “Mr Pao, a lab technician who ran the society, inspired me. He’s over 78 years old now and is still active today. His speciality is taking high-resolution photos of the moon.” Fong set his sights on attending Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), a decision based on the fact that the university had its own observatory telescope. It was only after Fong had paid the tuition fees for his electronic engineering degree that he discovered the telescope had been destroyed in September 1983 by Typhoon Ellen, which in Hong Kong killed eight people, injured 339 and left more than 2,000 people homeless. He was devastated but not undeterred. He set himself the challenge of repairing it, and begged teachers to let him fix it. “The students joked about it and some teachers had doubts. It had been broken for ... years and the telescope weighed a metric tonne [1.1 short tons],” Fong says. Getting parts delivered from the US proved difficult. “The telecommunications market back then was monopolised, so a one-minute overseas IDD [international direct dialling] cost HK$1. Just say my phone calls were short and to the point. Time was money.” Fong invested a lot of both. Four months later, in December 1989, and ahead of schedule, the telescope was repaired, his feat shocking students and scholars alike. “The moment I saw the ‘first light’ – that’s the first time you see an image through a telescope – I will always remember. It was very good and the calculations were perfect. It gave me confidence that I still carry today.” Two years after graduating, Fong was asked if he wanted to keep the telescope. “CUHK had plans to build a new one and offered it to me. Of course I took it. Since I was young I had dreamed of owning my own observatory – that dream came true.” The observatory is in rural Sai Kung district and is used by Fong and amateur astronomers. Fast forward a quarter century and Fong is still living that dream. In 1995 he established Galaxy Scientific Group, a firm that has built observatories from Malaysia to Macau and opened peoples’ hearts and minds to astronomy. He’s come a long way from that piece of cardboard. Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists … we all share the same starry sky, and that means we share the pollution that affects our observations Savio Fong His spacious office in the industrial district of Fo Tan, in the New Territories, is like a confectionery store for stargazers, every corner packed with tripods, lenses and astronomical telescopes of all shapes and sizes, the shelves showcasing items he has collected over the years: cameras, more lenses and an antique compass and pair of binoculars that could have come from the set of an Indiana Jones movie. One item in particular holds sentimental value: “That was my first camera,” says Fong, pointing to a Nikon F. There is also a box packed with cardboard telescopes similar to the one he made as a child. These, he says, are used for classes held at schools around the city. Fong is big on opening young eyes to the sky – his company also conducts educational astronomy courses for primary- and secondary-school children, taking them on stargazing trips from Sai Kung to Taiwan, New Zealand and the United States, as well as telescope-making workshops. Fong says that although he has seen and photographed some amazing scenes, a Tibetan night sky is hard to beat. “Tibet is beautiful. No light pollution, no air pollution. The sky is so clear.” He knows the area well, having travelled more than 10,000km across the Tibet plateau over the past 20 years. In 2010, in difficult conditions – at one point temperatures plummeted to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit) – he built one of the world’s highest observatories in Yangbajain, Tibet, becoming the first person to establish an optical observatory there. It is at an altitude of 4,300 metres (14,100 feet) and was commissioned by the National Taiwan University. Fong is well versed in the relationship between people and nature, relating stories about how peasants relied on the sky to set their daily routines, a practice which developed into what we know as a calendar. He knows how vital that relationship is today. “Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists … we all share the same starry sky, and that means we share the pollution that affects our observations. As a child I could see the Milky Way from Hong Kong Island. Now it’s barely visible. But air pollution has improved over the past 15 years.” he adds. “No longer do we have buses spewing out black smoke.” With reports of dangerous levels of air pollution regularly making headlines, Hongkongers might find it hard to believe the situation has improved; the improvements are due largely to efforts to phase out fossil fuels and switch to electric modes of commercial and public transport, and steps by the Environmental Protection Department and authorities in neighbouring Guangdong province in China to control regional air pollution. These measures include requiring new power plants to use cleaner fuel, such as natural gas, and existing plants to install emission reduction devices and shift away from coal. Fong says that while policy shifts are welcome, the government needs to do more about light pollution. Excessive artificial outdoor lighting, such as street lamps, neon signs, and illuminated signboards, affect the natural environment and ecosystem – and people’s health, with numerous studies showing it disrupts sleep patterns and affects brain and hormone function. In 2013, a study by physicists at the University of Hong Kong found the city’s urban night sky to be as much as 1,000 times brighter than the global standards set by the International Astronomical Union. Ironically, the place with the worst light pollution was the Space Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui, a district known for it high concentration of neon billboards and floodlights. One interesting finding from the world’s largest light pollution study – scientists collected more than five million brightness measurements at 18 monitoring stations over three years – was that rural areas were also being affected by man-made lighting. Even the Astropark stargazing facility near High Island Reservoir in Hong Kong’s New Territories – a place where a natural dark sky is expected – the brightness was still 20 times the standard. Fong says light pollution in rural areas is a big problem that could be easily solved. “The government is spending unnecessary money on street lamps in rural areas, country parks and on roads that nobody uses … we need to dim down in rural areas.” An annular solar eclipse on December 26 will be visible as a partial solar eclipse in Hong Kong. Members of the public are warned not to look directly at the sun with the naked eye nor through a telescope to avoid severe eye damage.