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Shedding Light On A Hot Topic

A night tour of Nathan Road discovers the array of flashing neon is not as cool as it might appear.

Yau Chui-yan – Updated on Jul 20, 2008 – SCMP

Twenty people gather in Nathan Road and look up at the same flashing advertising sign for a minute.

The 20, all from different professions, none of whom know each other, have joined a “Nathan Road tour” with the same purpose – to see the world famous thoroughfare’s dazzling array of neon signs.

They are trying to count the flickering frequency of a four-storey advertising sign. Some estimate that the sign is flickering 10 times a minute, others 20 times, but most give up early because the sign is too bright to look at for a whole 60 seconds.

When told that the flickering frequency is 40 times a minute, the group is amazed. “How do you live next to a flickering light like this?” is the common response.

The first stop on the tour is St Andrew’s church on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. The group stands next to the church, which is dimly lit. They are told that there are regulations governing the lighting used on important buildings in countries like Britain.

“There are stars, in Tsim Sha tsui,” one group member says in amazement pointing at the sky. “The weather is much cooler than we expect,” another says.

But after leaving the church area, there are no more stars to be seen, just the flashing advertising signs.

The first blow is a big advertising box located at the intersection of Nathan and Austin roads.

“The lighting of the advertising box made me feel so hot,” says Leung Pak-wai, a social work student. His friend Cheung Siu-shan, a geography student, agrees.

According to Elsie Yuen Oi-chi, the group’s escort from Friends of the Earth, the difference in temperature between the city and rural areas is 10 to 12 degrees Celsius. “These advertisements contribute to the temperature,” Ms Yuen says. “When 1 watt of electricity is consumed, 1.3 watts will be consumed to use an air conditioner to lower the temperature.”

Light pollution and energy wastage from flashing advertising signs is not a new topic in Hong Kong. The situation has become serious since Kai Tak airport closed in 1998 and restrictions on blinking lights were relaxed.

From January last year to June this year, the Environmental Protection Department received 67 complaints about external lighting. The department’s response is to advise the management firm or owners of the lighting to reduce the intensity or adjust the angle of spot lamps to minimise the impact on nearby residents.

The government also issued letters last September to chambers of commerce and trade associations appealing for their support in reducing unnecessary lighting and using more energy-efficient lights.

However, what is still missing is legislation directed at light pollution.

Friends of the Earth tried to highlight the problem last month with its “dim light” campaign, in which some building owners agreed to turn off their lights for one night.

James To Kun-sun, a Democrat lawmaker representing Kowloon West, has had complaints from people living in the district.

“There is no such legislation and affected people have no way to ask for help,” Mr To says.

“Also, in some cases, the main tenant, who owns the rights to the outer area of the building, will pay some of the affected residents as compensation. This also complicates the issue.”

He has tabled questions in the Legislative Council a few times, but his request for legislation on light pollution has not received a positive response from the government.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “The government didn’t even want to research this topic. Maybe the government thinks this is business operation and the number of people affected is small.”

Mr To may be right. To most people in the city, flashing lights are advertising and nothing more.

Cathy Yu Sin-ping used to be one of those people, but she changed her mind after inspecting the flashing light boxes close up.

“At first I felt this was remote and nothing to do with me,” says Ms Yu, who spends her daylight hours working as a clerk

“After this tour, I now understand the meaning of `those who have more power create more destruction’.”

Walking along Nathan Road, Ms Yu found it was most comfortable in Yau Ma Tei, because that is the section with the fewest advertising signs.

“It is much cooler,” she said.

The group agrees that the neon signs have a powerful advertising impact. However, they started to wonder at the wastage while looking at a blank advertising sign shining brightly.

“It is understandable that businessmen want to have better exposure by having an advertisement. But is there a need to switch on all the lights?” Ms Yu asks, while looking at a building in Mong Kok, which has about 70 lights shining brightly. When the tour gets moving again, there is discussion about Hong Kong’s well-worn image as the sparkling, brightly-lit Pearl of the Orient.

“I think that image is a construction, because there are lots of lights shining across the harbour,” says Mr Leung, the social work student, who plans to bring a friend on a Nathan Road tour.

“But I believe it is not necessary for this to be the image of Hong Kong. It can be something else. We have to think about it,” he adds, to general agreement.

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