Story highlights

Rebecca Lee was first person from Hong Kong to visit world's "three poles"

Laurel Chor, 26, founded the Hong Kong Explorers Initiative

Hong Kong CNN  — 

When explorers talk about their expeditions, they often focus on how they “conquered” a particular summit, or were “the first” to achieve something.

That’s exactly the type of language that makes Rebecca Lee cringe.

Nonetheless Lee, a determined but self-effacing woman in her seventies, is the first person from Hong Kong to visit the world’s “three poles” – the North Pole, the South Pole and Mount Everest.

When she first landed in Antarctica in 1985 with the China National Antarctic Expedition, she was the only woman there.

Lee’s also a photographer, documentarian, polar researcher, graphic designer, author, cancer survivor, mother and Chinese opera singer.

Yet she doesn’t dwell on her impressive CV.

Lee’s much more interested in talking about the environment from the vantage point of some of the world’s least accessible corners – and the urgency to protect it.

“Art can visualize climate change,” she tells CNN. “And I believe art and science can collaborate to help illustrate the timescale of climate change.”

Rebecca Lee's photography captures polar bears treading over melting ice at the North Pole.

Lee’s not the only female trailblazer from Hong Kong making her mark.

Laurel Chor, 26, belongs to a new generation of explorers who also sees environmental conservation as integral to their work.

A journalist, photographer, filmmaker and National Geographic Young Explorer, Chor traveled to Central Africa to work on a gorilla conservation project shortly after graduating from college – until she was evacuated because of an ongoing civil war.

She also helped produce a documentary about the illegal ivory trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Kenya and the UK.

In an effort to find out more about how exploration has changed, we brought these remarkable women together to compare notes. (See above video for more on their meeting.)

Hong Kong’s most scenic drives

Escaping one jungle for another

As young adults, both Hong Kongers say they wanted to get out of their city – a dense concrete jungle and global bastion of capitalism, where modern conveniences and material consumption have largely defined the way of life.

When asked about her fondest memories, Lee recalls her months of wintering in the Poles, where she kept little contact even with her daughters in order to stay focused.

“The dark, cold winter… (I have) really fantastic memories. I loved it. No phone, nothing at all… (It was) quiet, unless it was a windy day,” she says.

Rebecca Lee was the first woman to join the China National Antarctic Expedition in 1985.

Besides working closely with the polar scientists and documenting their work, she was also in the company of wildlife, photographing polar bears as they trod over melting ice in the Arctic, or documenting the moment a penguin would lay an egg in Antarctica.

Chor, too, sought intimacy with nature far away from home.

At the age of 22, she took part in a primate habituation program in Central African Republic as a research assistant.

She collected data on gorillas, photographed wildlife and gradually adjusted to life in a jungle, where a mosquito net felt like the only thing separating her from her surroundings.

It was terrifying in the beginning.

But an incident showed that she wasn’t as disconnected from her hometown as she’d thought.

Soon after she was evacuated from the Central African Republic with her team, 26 elephants were poached for their ivory.

Given that activists have called Hong Kong “the dark heart of the ivory trade,” Chor says it wasn’t unlikely that the ivory ended up in her home city.

Some 413 licensed ivory sellers are permitted to deal in material dating before a 1989 ban, which has created a legal veneer that encourages an illegal trade.

But the Hong Kong government announced in January this year that it will “take steps to ban totally the sale of ivory in Hong Kong.”

Laurel Chor photographed this mona monkey in a protected forest surrounding the Tafi Atome community in the eastern region of Ghana.

“It was really strange to me to realize that my home city was having such a direct impact on the wildlife populations halfway around the world,” says Chor.

“And it made me realize that as a Hong Konger, the more important work that I can do is not going off to try to save wildlife in other places, but to work at home and address issues here.

“I do think one of the root problems [in Hong Kong] is the lack of connection to nature.”

After returning home Chor founded the Hong Kong Explorers Initiative, which encourages people to learn about the city’s wilderness through a crowdsourced online database of its endemic and diverse species.

It wasn’t the most direct and urgent way to address climate change, she says, but she hopes it will nudge a new generation of Hong Kongers to go outside and experience nature.

Only then would people want to protect it.

Lee, too, has set her activism sights closer to home in recent years.

Photographing wildlife up close was one of Lee's fondest memories in the polar regions and has shaped her views on climate justice.

Today she’s focused on education and advocacy, giving lectures, publishing her research and even bringing her Hong Kong students on expeditions.

The Museum of Climate Change at the Chinese University of Hong Kong features an interactive exhibition highlighting Lee’s research – a facility that took 26 years of hard, long work for her to set up.

She says she had to lobby the government and other organizations, and spend her own funds, to carve out this learning space in Hong Kong devoted to climate change and the Polar Regions.

Hong Kong: Insider Travel Guide

Wild Hong Kong

Contrary to global perceptions, Hong Kong’s got plenty to offer its most qualified explorers.

It’s a remarkably biodiverse territory offering easy access to nature.

Hong Kong’s waters are home to more hard coral species than the Caribbean, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

It’s also home to rare animal species like pink dolphins and the black-faced spoonbill, a migratory bird that winters in Hong Kong, among other coastal areas in Asia, and breeds in the Korean Demilitarized Zone between South Korea and North Korea.

“So you can guess which one is more accessible,” Chor says.

Chor’s wish is to see more people camping in Hong Kong’s rural New Territories instead of going on weekend trips to Japan.

Hong Kong's endangered pink dolphins can be found around the coast.

“You can go to [the business district of] Central and then encounter wild boars or Chinese cobras within 10 minutes,” she says.

“There are not many places in the world you can do that.”

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CNN’s Chieu Luu and intern Christy Leung contributed to this feature.