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Hong Kong's new look blues

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Hong Kong: words don't do it justice  

Alex Frew McMillan

HONG KONG, China -- A picture has sparked a war of a thousand words in Hong Kong. And counting.

The cover of the new Hong Kong edition from the popular guidebook series Lonely Planet puts an unusual perspective on the city.

Gone are the colored lights, junks, Chinese signs and crowds that typify tourist fare about the former colony.

Instead, the Bank of China skyscraper stretches into the steel-blue sky. The sun glints off the glass and sharp edges of the building, the city's tallest.

Around it, the Central district, Hong Kong's Wall Street, lurks in a fog worthy of Gotham. But is it fog? Or mist? Or smoke?

Or pollution?

Different perspectives

The Lonely Planet has been quiet on the topic, letting Dennis Johnson's photograph speak for itself. The company has stated it intends to capture the city's modern feel.

From one perspective, the photograph encapsulates the new Hong Kong. In this capital of Asian banking, a tower of finance reaches for the future and the sky.

But that sky it is touching could just as easily be viewed as a cloud of factory output. Satellite pictures show a white blanket lurks all along China's industrial east coast.

The guide's new text does slam the air quality and pollution in Hong Kong.

"According to opinion polls, the environment -- not politics -- is the greatest issue of concern for Hong Kong residents post-1997," the guide states in its introductory section "Facts about Hong Kong."

After a rundown of risks about water quality, the guide warns visitors to think twice about visiting the city because of problems breathing.

"Another of Hong Kong's most serious problems is air pollution," the guide, written by Boston native Steve Fallon, states. "Smoke-belching factories, ceaseless construction and a high proportion of diesel vehicles have made for dangerous levels of particular matter and nitrogen dioxide."

Cause for thinking twice

Travelers with breathing problems should be wary of visiting for a prolonged period, he states, especially in summer.

Though Fallon lived in Hong Kong for "over a dozen years," according to the guide, he now lives in London.

Hong Kong tourism officials have in the past lamented the lack of a proper symbol for the city. A recent bank campaign featured a series of snapshots, including the convention center, new Chek Lap Kok airport and the famous Peak district.

The Bank of China building is a leading candidate. But officials are less than happy about the Lonely Planet's selection, or at least its portrayal of the building.

Tourist photos of Hong Kong generally show a clear-blue sky and a spotless harbor.

"Travel guides usually show pictures with blue sky, white clouds, clear water and fine sand," lawmaker Cyd Ho recently lamented, according to one wire service. Ho is deputy chairman of a legislative panel on environmental affairs.

Quality of life

Still, there is no question that mist around Hong Kong's skyscrapers is a staple of the city.

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's main English-language newspaper, took a photograph of Central from the Peak district every day in February, and found that not one day was clear.

A study released this week by the Political & Economic Risk Consultancy is adding fuel to Hong Kong's pollution fire.

For the first time, China outranked Hong Kong in a report on quality of life for expatriate families. Almost all the data for China came from the cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

"Expatriates complain most about the problem of pollution," the PERC reports says of Hong Kong, promising to revisit the topic with a newsletter this year.

It gets worse. The best city in Asia for expats to live in, PERC finds, is Hong Kong's city-state arch rival for business and regional headquarters, Singapore.


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