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Is Hong Kong’s pollution driving expats away?

Saturday 14 January 2012

The news that air pollution levels in Hong Kong were at a record high last year comes as little surprise to the expats who live in its smog

Description: A ferry crosses Hong Kong harbour under heavy smog

A ferry crosses Hong Kong harbour under heavy smog Photo: Paul Brown/Rex Features

By Leah Hyslop

9:20AM GMT 11 Jan 2012


According to a report published in The South China Morning Post earlier this week, air quality in Hong Kong was 10 times worse last year than in 2005, with pollution levels recorded at three roadside monitor stations above the “very high” mark more than 20 per cent of the time.

Such heavy pollution has obvious implications for the health of Hong Kong’s residents, who it is feared are at an increased risk of everything from respiratory problems to cancer, but also casts a shadow over the city-state’s future as a top international business centre.

Hong Kong is home to thousands of expat workers, many filling crucial positions in its thriving banking and finance sector, but the relentless grey haze which hangs over the former British colony could be increasingly driving those who can afford it to settle elsewhere.

Last year, a report from office supplier Regus revealed that an astonishing three-quarters of companies in Hong Kong saw pollution as a problem in recruiting and retaining international talent, while a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong found that nearly half (48 per cent) of its members knew of professionals who had left to escape the contaminated air.

Sylvia, a British banker who did not wish to give her full name, claims to know many expats who have returned to their home countries because of pollution, or asked for transfers to other major Asian hubs such as Singapore – largely, she says, due to health concerns.

“A friend of mine used to get plenty of headaches and migraines when he lived in Hong Kong for a few years; when he returned to the US the migraines stopped overnight,” she explains. “Another friend’s husband has a job here in Hong Kong but since his wife and daughter have asthma, they live in Singapore and he commutes here during the week.”

For those expats who choose to remain in Hong Kong, the desire to escape the smog often dictates where they live. Teacher Linda Kernan, originally from Kent, has ended up seeking refuge on one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, where there are no cars. Even so, on some days from her flat she can barely see the high rise buildings just a few miles away over the sea.

“The air quality does seem to be getting worse,” she says. “When I arrived here 17 years ago, there were many more days with a blue sky but now they are few and far between. Before Christmas I had to spend about five hours walking around with a friend, waiting for his evening flight. When we walked through town I could feel my throat getting steadily worse and by evening it was painful to talk. It starts with a prickly throat and develops into a sore throat if you stay on the busy roads.

“I have four years left to retirement, and I would love to stay in Hong Kong, but I think I will have to put my health first and leave.”

So why exactly is Hong Kong’s pollution so bad? A reason often cited is its location at the mouth of China’s Pearl River Delta region, a booming economic centre home to over 70,000 factories, but the city’s own industrial emissions, heavy traffic and tall buildings which trap contaminated air in a so-called “canyon effect” are also major factors. The government has taken some steps to combat the problem in recent years – including introducing a ban on leaving stationary vehicles’ engines running for more than three minutes – but local pressure groups such as the Clean Air Network insist that more changes are necessary.

How much damage the pollution issue could end up wreaking on Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a business centre is subject to hot debate. Sylvia admits that there is a long-term risk that “Hong Kong will lose top talent and industry to its rival Singapore,” but believes that even if many expats leave, the economy will not be seriously hurt.

“There’s hundreds of Westerners arriving every day,” she says simply. “The downturn in Europe means there are more and more people seeking work, and more companies relocating their staff here. Hong Kong’s economy has always been better than most; it experiences downturns but then it recovers very quickly.”

Hans Leijten, the regional vice president for Regus in East Asia is not so sure however. “Singapore is seen as a much greener and cleaner alternative, and it is gaining a competitive edge particularly when it comes to expats with families,” he warns.

“While Hong Kong’s economy and job market are still extremely strong and it remains a top destination for expatriates, the quality of the environment and its effect on their health is certainly weighing heavily on the minds of those working there.”

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