Most Hongkongers can’t wait to crank up the air-conditioning when they get home, and savour the blissful coolness of a shopping mall during the city’s sweltering summers. But a 72-year-old retired civil servant is making it his mission in life to spread an unpopular message: it’s time to switch off.
Lam Chiu-ying, director of the Hong Kong Observatory from 2003 to 2009, would never think of forcing someone to turn off the aircon despite his social media posts promoting USB-charged electric fans as an alternative. Nonetheless, many commenters mock his attempts to cut down on AC use whenever he speaks up about the dangers of climate change.
The former weatherman is often dubbed the “no air-conditioning icon.”
“I have not switched on the air-conditioner [for myself] for something like 10 years,” said Lam, though he confessed that he sometimes made an exception when his granddaughter visited.
Some see Lam’s position as out-of-touch and extreme, with people on online forums branding him an eco-terrorist, and others telling him to visit one of the city’s many infamous subdivided flats before speaking out.
With Hong Kong suffering the hottest July on record last month, they questioned whether he really cared about tenants enduring such cramped and sweaty conditions.
Lam first visited subdivided flats some two or three years ago when he was working with an NGO, the Hong Kong Young Women’s Christian Association, on a project intended to reduce electricity use so that tenants could save on bills.
“I’m a meteorologist, that’s why I was thinking of ways [to make a room cooler] linked to airflow. During the process, I learned about the situation at the grassroots level,” said Lam. “More and more, I think they are the biggest victims of climate change: that is why I want more people to pay attention to their situation.”
“Many people have air-conditioners in their homes, but [residents of subdivided flats] do not really want to use electricity. At the very least, I wanted to find ways to use less electricity even when the air-conditioning is switched on, or to help them use less air-conditioning.”
Lam visited two subdivided flats during an interview with HKFP on a sticky summer’s day in August, his backpack full of USB-charging fans and clutching a bag with a cooling mat. Dressed in an off-white shirt and dark trousers, sweat did not seem to bother him at all at all.
“It’s not dirty, it is just a natural defence by your body, so I cannot understand why people equate sweat with being unhygienic,” Lam said later, adding that he can go for days without washing his shirts.
Retired driver Wong Kwok-chong was sweating, however, after welcoming Lam into his home, one of the many cramped flats in Sham Shui Po.
The 68-year-old, who lives on his own with personal items stacked around the simple, small flat, said he often turns on the air-conditioner and the fan at the same time. Once the room is cool enough, he turns off the fan. At midnight, Wong switches off the AC and turns the fan on once again.
According to the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, using a fan at all times to help the air conditioner reach its set temperature will actually use less energy, Lam said.
The former Observatory director is promoting the use of USB-charged fans as an alternative to air-conditioning, even drawing a graphic suggesting how utilising three fans in a room can create better airflow.
But not everyone buys his argument.
Mr and Mrs Chan, a couple in their 90s, live in another subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po with their 67-year-old daughter, who came from mainland China to take care of them.
When Lam and HKFP arrived at their flat that same August afternoon, the couple had been blasting the air-conditioning all day. But the room was still stuffy, and the 90-year-old Mrs Chan complained about the heat.
The only big window in their flat is kept closed to stop rodents and insects crawling in, and she said they had no choice but to keep the air-conditioning on continuously in summer.
With the window facing a patio, there is no natural light.
Lam pulled a USB-charged fan from his backpack and tried to show the couple where to position it to make the temperature a bit more tolerable.
Mrs Chan said she already owned a big electric fan. Her husband said they had no use for the small fan because they had the air-conditioner.
Lam was unfazed by the couple’s rejection. “Never mind, let’s say you are doing a good deed by giving it to someone else,” he said.
Saving the planet is understandably not the couple’s priority. Their current subdivided accommodation costs them over HK$5,000 in monthly rent and bills and the Chans dream of getting a government-subsidised flat. Their application for public rental housing is one among 242,600, while the average waiting time for applicants is more than six years.
“[People] using air-conditioners and creating carbon dioxide – that is the big picture issue,” Lam said after the two visits.
“We also have to deal with the smaller picture, where it is intolerable for grassroots residents to live in such hot weather conditions. Turning on the air-conditioning to solve their problems is what needs to be done, it is inevitable.”
A firm believer in climate justice, Lam said it was for “people in the middle-class or above” to take action.
“I don’t agree with the argument where people think ‘No matter what individuals do, it will not beat the actions of a big shopping mall’,” he said. “Asking every individual to do something does not mean that we will not ask [big corporations] to take action.”
“There is a saying in Chinese: do not fail to do good, no matter how petty the deed.”
Many people of Lam’s age are happy just to enjoy their retirement. Yet his personal initiative to help save the planet is only just getting going.
“We live on Earth together with other people, and we should always have the welfare of other people in our heart,” he said.
“I am a meteorologist, I know very well the science behind the whole thing. I could understand how the future will look like, and I know too much, [so] that I simply could not close my eyes and pretend not to see.”
Not only do air-conditioners use more electricity than fans, they can release harmful chemicals into the environment that contribute to global heating.
“So long as there is a one percent possibility of surviving, we should try. I could not imagine the human race stopping doing anything because, ‘Oh the chance of survival is only 10 percent’. Even if it is one in 10, or one in 100, or one in 1,000, we would still try all that we could to save ourselves and to save other people.”
“It is not in human nature to give up when we see the end coming.”
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