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City Weekend

Determined volunteers cleaning up Hong Kong’s remote areas after Typhoon Mangkhut battle mountains of trash – and much despair

Residents from across city have been rallying support on social media platforms to restore normality in what they consider the hardest hit spots

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 9:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 9:30am

Three weeks after Typhoon Mangkhut whipped through Hong Kong, workers are still busy removing fallen branches, logs and debris, and racing to restore damaged infrastructure.

Life, for most, has returned to normal – but can the same be said for those in remote areas and outlying islands? Not according to some post-typhoon clean-up volunteers.

“Let’s just say the clean-up process is going to take a very long time if we do nothing and wait for the government to take action,” says Kitti Chan Tung-ping, a Sai Kung resident.

Volunteers from different districts across the city have been rallying for support on social media platforms to restore normality in what they consider the hardest hit areas, including Sai Kung, Luk Keng, Ap Chau, Tung Lung Chau, Lai Chi Wo, Tap Mun (Grass Island), Po Toi Island and Kut O.

For these remote districts, “normal” may be a long way off.

Chan, a full-time teacher who works in the afternoon, was in Sai Kung’s Tai Wan picking up trash last Friday. She had spent every morning over the previous nine days removing rubbish washed ashore on beaches and islands in Sai Kung during the typhoon. 

Typhoon Mangkhut felled 46000 trees. Will they end up in landfill?

“One morning, I spent almost four hours removing polystyrene particles from the surface of the water using a plastic basket as a sieve,” says Chan, who filled seven garbage bags that time.

“I didn’t want to stop because the current kept bringing polystyrene particles to the waterfront – but I had to leave for work.”

Chan has been recruiting other volunteers to help on her mission. She admits the process is not easy as she has little time outside her job and clean-ups to seek volunteers online. The largest group of volunteers she managed to recruit was 15.

Together, they filled almost 40 large garbage bags with rubbish they had collected from cleaning up around Sai Kung.

Chan’s busy schedule appears to have taken a toll on her health as well. Tugging on the collar of her rash guard, she reveals a large lump at the base of her neck.

“I probably should get my thyroid gland checked out. But as long as it doesn’t kill me, I’ll keep doing what I need to do.”

A fellow volunteer, Lawrence Tai, says he was inspired to join her clean-up as a way to connect with the community. Tai, a twenty-something civil servant and water sports enthusiast, visits Sai Kung often.

“It would be irresponsible to continue playing water sports without contributing to the clean-up effort,” he says.

Tai admits it is sometimes easier said than done. “It’s especially challenging when you have to deal with tiny bits of waste, like polystyrene particles, or large pieces of junk that are impossible to remove without special tools,” he says, pointing to a boat that had been washed ashore.

Professional diver Chan Wai-leung, joining the clean-up for the first time, says he has observed a growing amount of rubbish accumulating on the seabed over the past two decades.

“Sea urchins used to hide among rocks. Now, they hide behind rubbish,” says Chan, who is also a diving instructor.

Having seen the sheer volume of waste Mangkhut left in its wake, the diver says he feels even more helpless.

Selfish? Not Hongkongers, as post-typhoon clean-up efforts show

Between Wednesday and Saturday last week, Kitti Chan called the 1823 government hotline, left two messages with the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and made two unreturned phone calls to the Home Affairs Department to ask for help to collect the bags of rubbish she and the other volunteers had collected.

Last Saturday, the FEHD told her it had sent workers to Sha Ha Beach in Sai Kung, one of the locations where Chan and other volunteers had been cleaning, to collect the rubbish.

On Yim Tin Tsai, a small island off Sai Kung, the combined efforts of volunteers and villagers have reopened previously blocked roads. The typhoon felled about 20 trees and badly damaged a path leading to the mangroves.

But, according to an organisation dedicated to promoting environmental conservation on the island, Yim Tin Tsai is not in the clear yet.

“We just don’t have enough manpower and tools to cut and remove fallen trees,” says a spokesman from the Salt and Light Preservation Centre. Some 50 volunteers and villagers have already pitched in for the clean-up effort.

Villagers and volunteers on Tung Ping Chau appear to face a similar problem. Chau Tau village chief Vicky Yuen Siu-ying says that while government departments have been sending workers to collect waste gathered by residents and volunteers, many roads on the island remain blocked.

“There are still trees and large pieces of rubbish, like refrigerators, lying around the island – we can’t remove them by ourselves,” Yuen says.

This is not the only obstacle to the residents’ and volunteers’ efforts: with just four regular ferry rides between Ma Liu Shui and the island every week, the time volunteers are able to spend there is limited.

Stanley Chan Kam-wai, conservation manager at Lamma Corner – an eco-friendly store based on Lamma Island – says the biggest issue volunteers there face is the overwhelming amount of rubbish, particularly in Sok Kwu Wan, Shek Pai Wan in Tung O, and at the Pak Kok Tsuen waterfront.

Lamma Corner will be organising its third post-Mangkhut clean-up on Sunday in Pak Kok Tsuen.

On Thursday this week, Kitti Chan spent the morning cleaning in Pak Ma Tsui.

“I’m at my wit's end,” she says, standing in a mound of polystyrene. “There are only three of us today, so it’s going to take a while. But I’m certainly not giving up.”