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Hong Kong's cold war heats up

By CNN's Marianne Bray


Hong Kong
Environmental Issues

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- It is a hot and humid mid-summer's day in Hong Kong, with the temperatures hitting 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 Fahrenheit), but my toes, ankles and legs are freezing and my shawl is barely keeping me warm.

That's because I am working in an office in a city that has been christened the coolest air-conditioned place on the planet.

A growing horde of people are getting hot under the collar over the Arctic air-conditioning they are exposed to every day in this "Pearl of the Orient."

In the space of one day, it is not uncommon to walk out of the soaring tropical heat into bitterly cold buses, office buildings and shopping malls where temperatures can plunge by as much as 15 degrees Celsius.

A green group has just carried out a campaign to get a gauge on what Hong Kongers feel about the frigid air, and received many complaints about the chill breeze in buses, ferries, restaurants, shops and offices in this city of 6.9 million.

"I feel like working in the office is like working in the mortuary, I have to wear a fleece to work," was one complaint received, says Mie Ng, director of Friends of the Earth.

"Some of them say they really turn blue."

Ironically, this former British colony has become notorious around the world for its cool air, with guidebooks such as "The Lonely Planet" warning tourists to bring a jacket because the big chill in the restaurants and buses will turn extremities blue.

One of the worst offenders was the city's tourism promotion office, which registered 19 degrees Celsius, the green group said in a statement.

"It's time for Hong Kong people to wake up," says Ng. "We have to demonstrate climate responsibility."

Within each office building, air-conditioning takes up 60 percent of energy consumption, with experts saying all the cool air is warming up the planet.

Tourists and Hong Kong residents alike think it is time to break the ice in this bustling commercial hub that sits on China's southern coast, and stop dressing up for the artificially cold weather.

Research by Hong Kong Polytechnic University last month found most offices were set at 21 and 22 degrees Celsius, giving this Chinese territory some of the coldest interior spaces in the world.

Overseas governments and engineering associations have set 25.5 degrees as the temperature people feel comfortable at -- neither too hot nor too cold.

In October of 2004 the Hong Kong government launched an initiative to have the room temperature in public buildings set at 25.5 degrees Celsius during summer months. This June, it launched a "No freezing summer" campaign to urge the private sector to follow suit.

"We will continue with our current publicity campaign to enhance public awareness and public support for maintaining a higher indoor temperature, and to dispel the misconception that lower room temperatures necessarily mean better indoor quality," said a statement from Hong Kong's Director of Environment Protection.

So why does Hong Kong set its thermometers so low?

According to Daniel Chan, a professor at the building services engineering department at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, it is mostly a cultural thing.

When this entrepot started using air conditioning systems in the 1950s, the locals began calling it a "cold air system" and expected a sense of coolness, says Chan.

"It's easier for people to put on more clothes rather than taking off clothes, so engineers prefer setting it cooler to reduce complaints by users."

Too many clothes

Hong Kongers wear more clothes than any other people in the world, he adds, donning jackets and ties while their counterparts in Singapore wear short sleeve shirts with their collar open.

It is also partly financial. Tenants are charged on a rentable area, including all costs including air conditioning, so "why bother turning it up," Chan says.

"The tenants say, 'I have already paid you money, I want to get back as much as possible.'"

Looking ahead, Chan is optimistic, saying people are learning more about environmental issues while engineers understand more about what makes people comfortable.

"If people are really serious about ecology, we can't blame engineers or politicians, everybody should understand the question clearly," he says.

Already environmental groups in Beijing and Tokyo have kicked off energy-saving plans in their cities.

Japan's government has ordered workers to leave their ties and dark jackets at home and have set air conditioners to 28 degrees Celsius.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is leading the walk on the mild side, appearing in a newspaper ad wearing a half-sleeve shirt with no tie.

To reassure bureaucrats who may not be familiar with taking it off, the Environment Ministry released a manual on dressing down, including tips on matching belts with shoes.

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