Hong Kong is home to a diverse range of colourful characters, many of whom make invaluable contributions to our city. This year, the South China Morning Post has shone a light on the issues affecting the community, from campaigns to secure better working conditions for domestic helpers, to residents’ efforts to clean up the city’s rubbish-covered beaches. Here we honour some of the individuals and organisations we have featured who have helped us to tell the story of Hong Kong in 2016. Environmentalist All of Hong Kong’s beach clean-up groups, who came together to collect an unprecedented amount of marine rubbish which washed up on beaches following heavy rain and flooding in the Pearl River basin during July. Sea Shepherd’s Gary Stokes and Living Lamma founder Jo Wilson were particularly instrumental in raising the profile of the clean-up campaign, sharing photographs that went viral on social media. Their rousing words helped to prompt hundreds of others to hold impromptu clean-up days on Lantau, Lamma, Repulse Bay, Shek O and Stanley beaches among others. Stokes said it was flattering to be singled out for his campaigning but added it was “hard to hide the environmental damage in Hong Kong at the moment”. “We are reaching a turning point now,” he said. “The government is now watching our social media and taking action. When it goes global like that, then they really have to act.” Explorer Cathay Pacific pilot Hank Cheng, who made it around the world from Hong Kong in a home-made plane in just three months. He said he hoped his epic 49,650km trip in the B-KOO Inspiration plane would become a source of pride for the city. At times he was forced to alter his flight path as he faced difficult weather conditions, including chilly winds, heavy snow and typhoons. But on November 13, he finally arrived home after his adventure saw him touch down at 45 airports in 20 countries. Cheng said he was indebted to his team for helping him complete the expedition. “It was a team effort, I am just the guy who flew the plane,” he said. “It would not be a success without everyone’s great effort, therefore, I prefer not to stand out as an individual.” Public sector Hong Kong’s firemen, two of whom – Thomas Cheung and Samuel Hui Chi-kit – died while battling a blaze at an industrial building in Ngau Tau Kok in June. The heroic pair were posthumously awarded the Gold Medal for Bravery. They were among 29 firefighters to be commended for their actions after the fire and a separate blaze at the Cheong Fat Building in July. The fires reignited separate debates around the safety of mini-storage facilities and the hazardous nature of the city’s subdivided flats. Fire Services Officers Association chairman Yang Kin-sang said the fires had been a “big blow” to morale”. “I am glad to see that the department appreciated the utmost efforts [the firefighters] had made,” he said. Hobby group The Hong Kong UFO Club, which has more than 10,000 members. Founded in 1996, it became a talking point once again in June when it claimed a UFO was spotted hovering over Tsing Yi. The sighting was not confirmed by the Hong Kong Observatory. Although club founder Moon Fong Chung-moon has admitted as many as half of local UFO sightings may have been aircraft or drones, she believes alien life exists and that aliens have visited earth. Club member Michael Kong Tao said the group was honoured to be recognised, particularly as this year marked its 20th anniversary. Local character Nick Lovatt, a.k.a Nick the Bookman, a resident of Lamma Island for more than three decades. The part-time bookseller and furniture mover became the focus of an amusing picture series on Facebook after a Lamma ferry passenger shared a photo of him reclining on a sofa on board. Intrigue soon spread online, with social media users speculating about the identity of the eccentric-looking character. In an interview with the Post in June, Lovatt revealed he was often photographed by tourists and even featured as a “typical Lamma resident” in the 2014 Mandarin edition of a Hong Kong Lonely Planet book. Lovatt said he was humbled that his contribution to Lamma was being recognised. “I try to wear my ‘heroism’ lightly and am happy to have whatever exposure to praise and plug Lamma and our Lamma.com.hk website,” he said. Charity Helpers for Domestic Helpers, which campaigns on behalf of Hong Kong’s migrant domestic workers to improve their working conditions. This year they were among the groups who successfully campaigned for a ban on external window cleaning for domestic helpers. The charity’s manager Holly Allan said the increased media profile of domestic helpers had boosted her campaign. “A recognition of the work of HDH is a recognition of the need to protect domestic workers who are among the unsung heroes of Hong Kong,” she said. “The space provided by the media in bringing the various issues they face to the fore is a step towards better treatment of domestic workers” Sport Teenage windsurfing world champion Mak Cheuk-wing, who won the under-15s title in the Techno 293 class on Lake Garda in October. The 13-year-old was hailed “daughter of the wind”, the heir apparent to Lee Lai-shan, Hong Kong’s only Olympic gold medallist, even though she is not yet old enough to join the Hong Kong team. The St Stephen’s Girls’ College student only started sailing four years ago after watching surfers in Stanley. Animal Dogs from Animals Asia Foundation’s Dr Dog scheme, which supports local children with learning difficulties and elderly people. This year the programme, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, received a HK$180,000 donation from Operation Santa Claus, the annual charity campaign jointly organised by the Post and RTHK. The Animals Asia Foundation is using about 250 therapy dogs in Hong Kong, and participating dogs are screened and trained to ensure they are suited to the therapy programme. Karina O’Carroll, the charity’s animal welfare education manager, said its volunteers were fully deserving of the “hero” title. “Our special ‘heroes’ come with four legs and fur and are making an amazing difference to the lives of about 8,000 people across Hong Kong during more than 200 visits each year,” she said. City icon One of Hong Kong’s most famous cats, Brother Cream, who even has his own PR agent, has turned his attention to charity after rising rents forced his owner to close his convenience store in Tsim Sha Tsui East in May. The Cream Bro Foundation now supports small NGOs and selfless individuals who show unconditional love towards animals. Next year the 11-year-old British shorthair hopes to launch his own brand of cat food with his owner Bee Ko Chee-shing. Parent Newman Chan, from Ma On Shan, who became a viral sensation in March after sharing footage of himself on Facebook in which he gave his daughter a “virtual reality experience”. The innovative father was filmed holding up his daughter on her pink bicycle while she watched GoPro footage of a mountain biker on her television screen. The Facebook video has been watched more than 28 million times, with Chan receiving praise from around the world. Activist Tommy Chen, spokesman for gay rights group Rainbow Action, spoke out on the government’s treatment of LGBTI people as “second class citizens”. In November he said Hong Kong urgently needed to implement legislation recognising the rights of sexual minorities in the city , after a survey suggested most Hongkongers believed same-sex couples should be allowed to ask a doctor about their long-term partner’s medical condition and claim their ashes after they die. He has also been vocal on the government’s refusal to condemn gay “conversion therapy” . Survivor Former fashion designer Mike Ko, 43, who continues to battle amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare type of motor neurone disease that causes a victim’s muscles to rapidly weaken. Donations to the ALS Association rocketed in 2014 due to the viral ice bucket challenge, but now they have dipped significantly, leaving Ko and Hong Kong’s other 400 ALS patients concerned about their future. He relies on 24/7 care from his 70-year-old mother and domestic helper.