by Doug Meigs, writing for China Daily (Asia Weekly):
Shek Kwu Chau is an idyllic, almost pristine island on the southern edge of Hong Kong waters. Few people actually live there, though the island provides a quiet retreat for recovering substance abusers. But the tranquility of the place is soon to disappear. The island has been chosen as the site for a new waste incinerator.
It’s 20 minutes by ferry from Cheung Chau to Shek Kwu Chau, a picturesque island in the southernmost part of Hong Kong territory. It’s off-limits to most people. Visitors need special permission from SARDA — the group that operates a big drug rehab center on the island. So, I felt privileged to have been invited to the island now swept up in a battle over government plans to build a giant waste incinerator.
Most of those on the ferry are staff and recovering addicts.
Among our fellow passengers is longtime Cheung Chau resident Martin Williams, He’s an avid naturalist, writer and an opponent of the incinerator. He wears a field scientist getup, floppy safari hat and hiking sandals.
Williams had visited Shek Kwu Chau a few times before, tagging along with US biologist James Lazell, who had discovered two snakes known to exist only on the island — Hollinrake’s Racer and a subspecies of Jade Vine Snake.
“The island has some unique wildlife. Lots of things: bugs, snakes, lizards, sea eagle nests, and the big one is the finless porpoise, which uses Shek Kwu Chau for breeding,” he says.
Upon arriving at the island, Williams steps onto the pier and immediately admires the clarity of the water— “much better than Cheung Chau,” he says, pointing at small schools of corral fish.
The island’s superintendent, Patrick Wu, is waiting. He offers a hearty greeting at the pier. He is a retired corrections officer, dressed in casual business attire-short-sleeved shirt and khakis.
Shek Kwu Chau is laden with intriguing relics of the past.
At the end of the pier we pass through a giant Chinese city gate, past a mural depicting a scene of Qing Dynasty officials dumping opium, and then a menagerie filled with peacocks. Buildings fashioned with Neoclassical and Baroque facades give way to pagodas and shrines. There is a Roman bath, a Taoist temple, a Buddhist temple and a Christian Church. There are white statues of martial artists striking kung fu poses, standing in contrast to emotive female and male nudes reminiscent of Renaissance masters.
The air here is notably fresh.
Tourists would love the place, if it weren’t restricted.
Only family members of recovering addicts, and a few locals from Cheung Chau who visit the graves of ancestors buried here, make occasional trips on the twice-daily ferry.
The island is part of Hong Kong’s largest drug rehab facility, managed by the government-funded Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Users (SARDA).
The superintendent ushers us into his white SUV with the license plate “SKC 1”. He cruises the narrow road meandering up and around Shek Kwu Chau’s dual peaks.
More than 10 buildings appear scattered throughout the thick trees and overgrowth. A total population of nearly 250 lives on the island — that’s 50 staff and 200 rehab clients.
Compared to the island’s residents, we are all overdressed, in the sweltering heat. Most of the rehab clients are half-naked and barefoot. All are men, aged from their early-20s through middle-aged. There’s a work crew deepening the reservoir. Some are walking dogs, part of an animal therapy program. Everybody is sweating profusely.
What has drawn the scientist and superintendent together in common cause was the decision of the Town Planning Board, rezoning adjacent waters to allow construction of a massive grate incinerator. Hong Kong, hard pressed to find a solution to its massive waste problems, plans to burn 3,000 tons of waste here every day. A 150-meter-tall tower is planned to be built on an artificial island. The reclaimed land on which the tower will sit, will cover over the habitat of the finless porpoise, a species that the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List identifies as “vulnerable”.
The isolation of the island is helpful for the therapy of recovering addicts. Some may experience withdrawal pangs. They can suffer here amid the quiet and solitude, away from the distractions of the busy city.
It was the isolation of the island that drew the attention of the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), when staff began seeking a site to build a waste incinerator.
Environmentalists responded with fierce opposition to the Shek Kwu Chau plan.
While most criticism for the incinerator hinges on environmental concern. SARDA’s position is different. The organization is more worried about its clients, the recovering addicts.
“Drug abusers tend to be quite passive and don’t think very highly of their own status. If you move an incinerator there, they might feel like it’s because they’re rubbish. I’ve heard that sentiment expressed,” says May Cho, a SARDA assistant superintendent of social service, who joined China Daily on the fast ferry from Central to Cheung Chau for the connecting boat.
Today, amid legal challenges, the incinerator project has been “officially” stalled for months.
In favor of Shek Kwu Chau, an alternative site for the incinerator had been passed over — at the Tsang Tsui Ash Lagoons — a barren part of Tuen Mun, situated beside a power station, landfill and existing infrastructure. According to the EPD’s Environmental Impact Assessment, the more-expensive island reclamation option carried more ecological risks, but lower risk of damaging air quality of the neighbors.
The Legislative Council on Environmental Affairs rejected funding for the proposed Integrated Waste Management Facilities in April, and the Court of First Instance accepted an application for a Judicial Review of the EPD’s Environmental Impact Assessment in June.
While the legal battle drags on, management of Shek Kwu Chau’s rehabilitation center hangs in limbo. They await a decision of the judicial review, which will open hearings on November 14. The island’s superintendent says his organization has shared its concerns with the EPD, only to receive assurances that the incinerator technology does not pose a health hazard.
May Cho is a former social worker for SARDA. She used to commute to the island daily and fondly remembers walking past the island’s dragonflies, before she took a promotion to SARDA’s Wan Chai headquarters. Williams says a nearby incinerator would disrupt the island’s insect life, too.
Wu explains SARDA’s concerns while continuing our tour of the island: “There could be air pollution, the smell of garbage, noise pollution, and even light pollution when the plant is lit up at night.”
The EPD actually predicted the incinerator would become a tourist attraction, drawing about 300 visitors a day to the artificial island. Wu bristles at the prospects, “That’s the last thing I want.” After all, the island is restricted.
Incinerator construction is estimated at five years. Once it goes into operation, the disruption of the island’s peaceful serenity would be even greater.
“The noise would be terrible,” says Wu. “Even the motor of a small boat passing nearby is very clear. Who knows how noisy five years of construction will be. They say, ‘Oh, it’s all right, (the construction crews) won’t do it at night time.’ So they will only do it in the daytime? Well, most our clients sleep during the daytime when they are undergoing detoxification, then they suffer insomnia and walk around at night.”
Wu says SARDA communicated its concerns to the EPD, and the department went ahead with obtaining rezoning permission anyway.
SARDA began operating in Hong Kong in 1961. It opened the Shek Kwu Chau facility in 1963. It has three additional rehab centers around Hong Kong.
Before SARDA began managing the island, Wu said it was like the uninhabited “backyard” of Cheung Chau. It also contains the grave of a British captain’s wife who died at sea in 1845.
Wu gives credit to JB Hollinrake (a superintendent from 1972-1990) for defining the peculiar flavor of the architecture, which appears a surreal hodgepodge of classic Western and Chinese influences.
The late Princess Diana of Wales even visited Shek Kwu Chau twice while in Hong Kong. Wu says he believes the princess’ parents had some relation to Hollinrake’s family. A free standing archway, with plaques and photos on either side, commemorates her visit near the sculpture garden.
Wu laments that no drug rehab facilities are comparable to Shek Kwu Chau in Hong Kong or abroad. He once visited Bath in England just to see their ancient Roman baths. “I think ours are more spectacular,” he says with a big grin. He knows the island’s kitsch is only part of Shek Kwu Chau’s irreplaceable formula for success.
“You are a free man on the island,” he beams. “Unlike other rehab facilities — where the client will be locked up in a building, here, you can walk along the trail, or go to other houses to visit. This is a community, and it would be very difficult to find a replacement.”
We continue driving and stop at the buildings nearest to where the incinerator island would appear.
Laundry is hung up outside a small white-washed dormitory building. A herd of goats is rummaging for scraps. Some of the men come outside to say hello.
Samuel, a 35-year-old from Mei Foo, says he has four months left on the island. “It’s not good to destroy the environment here. It’s hard to find air as fresh as this.”
Williams points at some small boats and construction workers. “That drilling platform is doing a seabed exploration ready for the incinerator island.” The ocean opens before us. The Soko Islands appear small on the horizon.
The EPD proposed a 300-acre marine reserve across the waters to mitigate the loss of porpoise habitat. He wonders if the artificial island construction and subsequent waste-laden barge traffic would have already ruined the area for the marine mammals.
Wu is interested in conserving the local natural environment, but his professional obligation is ensuring the center maintains its ability to rehabilitate drug addicts.
SARDA has served as custodian of Shek Kwu Chau for half a century. He says they don’t have any plans to abandon their work on the island now.
He drives us down the mountain and we board a ferry headed back to Cheung Chau. The boat departs, and after a moment, the remote island has shrunk back onto the horizon, off-limits once again.
24 Aug 2012