Waiting For No Clouds In Hong Kong

A second aborted attempt, this morning, to conduct an aerial shoot of the Hong Kong skyline. With a clear blue sky.

When I looked out of my window at 7am, it all looked so promising. Just a few wispy clouds around. They would have performed their decorative function well, had my pilot been out of bed. But no. Shortly before 8am, large cumulonimbus clouds began to roll in from 'out of the blue'.

Jinxed again.

Job postponed.


Hong Kong Nurdles

I thought I'd get down on my hands and knees today, to shoot with a macro lens, the plastics on beaches in Hong Kong that are practically invisible to the naked eye.


Camouflaged against the sand, a clear-coloured nurdle looks like a little like a sand granule or a tiny bit of grit. If you don't already know about them you probably wouldn't even know they were there. The nurdle at the top left of the above image is about 3mm in diameter, and looks a little like a nurdle in another picture I took nearly three years ago.

The proper name for a nurdle is a 'Pre-Production Plastic Pellet', or PPPP. Most beach-goers are completely oblivious to nurdles. Sometimes they are called 'mermaid's tears'.

A PPPP is what plastic looks like in its raw form after leaving the factory that made it from crude oil. These factories are usually located near oil refineries in countries like Saudi Arabia. Bags of the stuff are shipped on pallettes to factories that make plastic products around the world - including China, of course.

Unfortunately a whole lot of the infernal things escape during transportation. Sometimes trucks spill nurdles, sometimes trains and sometimes ships. The nurdles that actually arrive at their intended destination, that didn't get lost along the way, are poured into molding machines that heat and extrude them into anything and everything made from plastic in our daily lives.

But there are now so many 'lost' nurdles in the world's oceans that scientists are increasingly worried as nurdles absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs), some of which can be cancer-causing. When toxic nurdles are eaten by marine animals, the 'bioaccumulated' toxins gradually work their way up the food chain ending up on our plate, via the seafood that we, the human race, consume in such vast quantities.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, are doing a study into the PPPP problem right now on their boat the 'New Horizon'.

Here is an extract from their SEAPLAX blog, which explains the awful problem in great detail.

There are two issues we are dealing with here. One, the plastic leaches chemicals used in manufacturing that can be toxic to organisms at certain concentrations. And, the issue that worries me most, plastics are like magnets to pollutants already present in seawater and these adhere to their surfaces at magnified concentrations. The ocean is the ultimate sink for many industrial and agricultural pollutants. It is a known fact that pesticides, fuel residue, flame retardants, etc… are in the oceans. These are a few of what we refer to as a suite of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. Many POPs are known to be harmful to marine organisms. Animals will bioconcentrate (take up directly) these pollutants from water or sediments, or bioaccumulate them (through ingestion from other contaminated organisms). Rachel Carson told the story of how DDT, a pesticide, brought the brown pelicans down to crippling numbers. POPs are persistent and not very soluble and thus can concentrate in the water, sediments and the food chain… and now plastic.

These pollutants are hydrophobic, meaning they do not like water and thus stick to other particles in the water. Plastic has become a new material for them to leach onto. Now, don’t let this fool you into sounding like a good thing because it removes the pollutants from the water. Some organisms ingest plastic, mistaking it for food. Once this plastic is introduced into their system the POPs have the ability to leach off and grab onto the tissue of the organism. As the animal eats more and more plastic it has the ability to accumulate more pollutants. Plastics have been documented to attract magnified amounts of POPs from the water. Now, lets say ten krill eat a plastic pellet and accumulate a certain amount of a pollutant. Then, two fish eat five of the krill each and now each have five times as much pollutant as the krill. Then a tuna comes along and eats the two fish and has ten times as much pollutant as the krill. Then the tuna is caught in a net, sold at the grocery store, and sold to you at the store to put on your dinner plate. After dinner, you have now accumulated the magnified concentration of pollutant. This is termed biomagnification. Now the issue involves more than just the ocean, but us. What are the adverse effects of some of these pollutants you may wonder? At certain levels some are carcinogens, may harm the reproductive system, disrupt the endocrine system, and some can lead to death.

(Text by Chelsea Rochman on Day 15 of Seaplex's oceanic fact-finding mission)

Scary stuff. Seeing the amount of plastics washing up on the beach in Hong Kong really does break my heart. Anyone fancy a biomagnified fish supper tonight?

A carelessly discarded cigarette lighter...

... and a carelessly discarded beach ball. Beach toys are so cheap in Hong Kong that people don't bother to bring them home. They just leave them on the beach for nature to deal with, as who wants brightly coloured sandy plastic stuff in their 500sq ft flat anyway?

A dirty beach is not complete without the ubiquitous piece of polystyrene foam. I think the light bobbly stuff should be banned. Spot the plastic 'watermelon' beach ball.

And there are a vast number of tootbrushes at large in the marine environment.

For more examples of toothbrushes found on beaches and at sea click here and here.

Spot the inflatable plastic lilos in the above photo. It took me over an hour with a friend to disentangle a destroyed big yellow inflatable dinghy from between the rocks the other day. It's plastic hull was pierced and had filled with sand and had become fully embedded in to the beach. It was nearly impossible to shift, and was sinking further into the sand with every tide. We had to use a dive knife to cut it apart, scooping the sand out from the different air chambers with our hands, before we finally freed the thing. Why it was there in the first place, I do not know.

The only organisation in Hong Kong that is trying to address the local and global problem of marine plastics pollution is Project Kaisei. It still seems no one else cares.


And now for something completely different.

I have a corporate client that has requested aerial shots of Hong Kong from a helicopter. The weather website said it would be perfect yesterday. So at 8.00am I got up to the the helipad on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, and was greeted by the above scene. Clouds! Too many of them! I don't mind a few small fluffy ones, but these were the big wet white and grey variety. Only Central district was lit up. Where was the blue sky promised me by the Hong Kong Observatory?

I had got out of bed ridiculously early for no reason. A waste of time, a job postponed. But not to worry, the deadline is early October so I still have time.

E-waste 'recycling' in Guiyu, China - 03

It's Tuesday, so it must be time for this week's toxic images from Guiyu, the e-waste capital of China. The story behind the photos can be found here.

A woman and a baby in front of a big pile of keyboards.

Migrant workers breaking apart PC power supplies.

Migrant workers breaking apart PC power supplies.

A big pile of PC power supplies.

 A keyboard in a sack of redundant electronic stuff.

Young girl in close proximity to a yard full of toxic integrated circuit boards.

More migrant workers breaking apart random bits of large electronic machines.

A migrant worker breaking apart random bits of large electronic machines.

A migrant worker breaking apart random bits of large electronic machines.

* * * For more information on how to help fight the problem of e-waste, please visit the Basel Action Network website * * *

A Price Myth Debunked: Why Shark Fin Soup In Hong Kong Is Not Expensive Anymore, Or Sharkfinomics

The comments section of yesterday's post on the shark fin protest by Ran Elfassy of Shark Rescue is on fire and well worth checking out.

Yesterday, a visitor to the blog by the name of John Gulliver left a post about talking about the oft percieved exclusivity of Shark Fin Soup due to its high price.


Well here's the shocker. Contrary to popular misconception, shark fin is not expensive anymore, and the reasons for this I have set out in my response to John Gulliver further down this page.

For obvious reasons, a cheaper bowl of shark fin soup is catastrophic for the remaining global shark population. It doesn't take a noble prize economist to work out that as shark fin becomes cheaper, more shark fin will be consumed by more people. This in turn will speed up the vicious cycle hastening their extinction. Is this the beginning of the end?

Before going into the economics of the market price for shark fin, I want to share my research on various shark fin promotions around town that I have seen this year.

Here, in descending order of price, are the various shark fin promotions I found:-

1) A current promotion at the Marco Polo Hotel in Hong Kong, where you get a buffet with all kinds of stuff coated in shark fin for HK$328 (US$42.30) per adult, which is less than half the "upwards of US$100 a bowl" price one often sees quoted around quite a bit. Fancy shark fin jelly anyone?

(Strangely enough, this is the same hotel that recently promised it would no longer sell the highly endangered blue fin tuna. Not sure why the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing at the Marco Polo, but hey.)

2) Going down the scale, here's an unlimited shark fin buffet you could find a few months ago at The Metropark Hotel for HK$238 (US$30.70) per adult. This is less than two thirds the usual clichéd US$100 a bowl price:-


At the bottom end, check out this review from the main Hong Kong restaurant review website Open Rice for a cheap shark fin promotion combo meal including shark fin soup for HK$59 (US$7.61) which you could find in May this year at MX, part of of Maxim's Group. That's less than 8% of the price of that urban myth US$100 a bowl of shark fin soup! Now will people believe me?

The above review translated into English: The latest dinner menu item on offer is a 'shark fin in chicken broth' combo for HK$59, which includes a bowl of rice, a side dish and a cup of tea. The main dish is shark fin soup with half a chicken and real shark fin. What you get really does look like what you see on the promotional leaflet. The soup itself is the main attraction, as it's made of air-dried ham according to the promotional leaflet, but it tastes far worse than what you would get in a proper (ie non fast food) restaurant. The pork tasted bland, but the chicken meat was tender. A good thing was that there wasn't too much MSG. To sum up, a fast food restaurant should always serve cheap food, but serving high-end food such as shark fin with a cheap price tag is actually quite off-putting.

And finally, here's that same cheap shark fin promo at MX, this time in a gushing advertorial in the local Hong Kong daily Wen Wei Po.

A brief translation of the part of the advertorial that refers to the price is as follows:- Cheap price for a superb shark fin soup made with the best ingredients including chicken, air-dried ham. Simmered for hours etc etc...

Now that I have debunked that common myth of the high price of shark fin soup, here's my (slightly re-edited) response to John Gulliver:-

Hi John,
I would just like to set the record straight on some shark fin issues for you.
    1) Shark fin is much cheaper than it once was since the economy turned bad and the bottom fell out of the market. The price of shark fin is heavily tied to the price of oil, as the price of fishing boat fuel is a key overhead for tuna fishing boat operators who are the main culprits in the senseless shark slaughter. Related to this is that some big traders who had been stock-piling shark fin when the price of oil was at an all time high then released masses of the stuff onto the market when the oil price dropped, at the end of last year. This caused a sharp drop in the price of shark fin. The ensuing glut of shark fin in the market then caused it's price to slide further. Add to that all the bankers and high end clients stopped ordering shark fin at their company functions because of the bad economy, so the price, which had already been low, then went into freefall. I know this from talking to different vendors, most of whom are actually nice people, though some can be a bit thick-skinned and in denial. The price of shark fin is recovering somewhat, but it's still a lot cheaper than it was in 2007, early 2008. The consequence of all of this is that now shark fin is more accessible than ever to the man on the street. Even local fast food chain 'Maxim's' have been known to run cheap shark fin promotions. I don't have the figures on hand right now, but I can certainly get them for next time.
    2) Being well off does not equate being well educated anywhere, least of all in the 'new' China.
    3) I agree with you that targeting various groups with education on marine ecology is a good thing, but there is also room for protest at grass roots level too. You might call it a multi-pronged approach. That is what Hong Kong Shark Foundation (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=52859971024) is all about. Also please bear in mind that most people in Hong Kong couldn't give a monkey's about environmental degradation in their own back yard, much less so about the global marine environment. But that's changing slowly - too slowly in fact. So causing noise, any noise, is good right now, especially if it's picked up in the local press, which it was here: ( http://hk.apple.nextmedia.com/template/apple/art_main.php?iss_id=2009081... )
    4) Chinese do not eat shark fin soup because of any alleged health benefits. There are none, they know that, and that's not what it's all about for them. It's purely a 'face' dish to prove that they are rich.
    5) No one attacked anyone yesterday. The day's action passed off peacefully. Anyway Ran would have been unable to do anything anyway even if someone had tried to assault him, as his hands were completely constricted at his sides by his wonderful silver shark costume that has no sleeves, (sharks have no arms you see!) He was a very non-threatening shark, you understand! The beauty of yesterday's protest was to get a modest amount of publicity on the issue to make more people sit up and take notice. It was not targeting the vendors per se.

I hope this makes sense to you.

All the best,

And finally, here's one last zen-like bonus image from yesterday's Shark Rescue protest for all you Ran Elfassy fans out there!

Rare Anti-Shark Finning Protest In Hong Kong

Today I witnessed a rare protest in Hong Kong against the cruel practice of shark finning.

In fact... I believe it to be a first in this city. And that honour goes to Ran Elfassy of 'Shark Rescue'!

Shark Rescue are demanding the Hong Kong Government take the lead in calling for an end to shark finning, which is completely unsustainable. They are also protesting to highlight a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report that said that 32% of open ocean sharks are now threatened with extinction. 

The issue has been rumbling along in Hong Kong for quite a while now. First there was Disney. Then the Universities took shark fin soup off their banquet menus. Now the Hong Kong Shark Foundation has come along, but they are still getting their act together. Expect a splash later in the year.

But today was the first time I have ever seen or heard of a protest being staged at 'ground zero' of the problem, Des Voeux Road, Sheung Wan, that is to say on what the Hong Kong Tourism Board like to call 'Dried Seafood Street'. More like 'Oceanic Apocalypse Street'. I've heard a lot of pub talk about parading a bloodied papier maché shark through the streets of Sheung Wan, or some such stunt, but no one ever follows through with it.

The traders were not exactly happy with Elfassy's presence, although he did look rather fetching in his silvertip suit.

"Who the hell are you? And why are you in my shop?"

A one man protest pauses for thought by a Whale Shark fin.

It's great to see someone in Hong Kong finally doing something tangible about this issue. Elfassy got a few bad looks, but also some encouragement.

So much talk, and not enough action. Congratulations to Ran Elfassy at Shark Rescue.


E-waste 'recycling' in Guiyu, China - 02

I had such a positive response to my 'E-waste 'recycling' in Guiyu, China - 01' story posted on the 17th July 2009 that I have decided to upload more pix from the trip. However I have so many pictures to share, that I will be uploading them in weekly batches of nine images per batch over the next four weeks.

The story behind the pix is here.

The first batch is here:-

Breaking apart PC power supplies.

Unloading computer printed circuit boards in downtown Guiyu.

Unloading computer printed circuit boards.

Bags of flat screen monitors ready for breaking.

A Dell 760E keyboard sits in a bag of e-waste.

Integrated circuit boards.

A truck full of unidentified e-waste.

A truck full of unidentified e-waste.

A shop advertises that they buy Integrated Circuit boards.

More next week...

Hong Kong Street Art - Toyota Sucks

It's good to see urban art is alive and well in Hong Kong.

This spotted yesterday outside a Toyota outlet in Watson Road, Tin Hau.

Or maybe somebody has a grudge againt Toyota. But I doubt it.

This is nothing compared to what French artist Zevs did to Armani in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. He caused HK$6.7 million worth of damage, according to the store.


Watch an interview with Zevs here.

Hong Kong Minibus Druggy Poster

There have been two stories in the local press that have caught my eye recently. The first is about random drugs testing for school kids in Hong Kong. The second is about the current spate of minibus crashes in Hong Kong which have resulted in four deaths due to careless speeding drivers. This has revived the old debate over whether the Government should fit mandatory speed limiters to minibuses, or not. They will, but not until 2010.

Both these stories have had legs, and have been running across all local media for days and days now.

So is it just me, or is it not just a tad strange to see druggy posters displayed in the windows of the red Shau Kei Wan minibus (facing both inwards and outwards)?

OK, so I know the posters are within the law as they do not actually promote the sale of drugs or condone their use. They only advertise a place in Church Street, Shau Kei Wan, where you can buy drug smoking paraphernalia. Like papers, bongs and pipes for smoking marijuana or cannabis, for example.

But as the minibus screams round another hairpin bend on the Shek O road at 80km/h, and as I hang onto dear life and the seat in front of me with clenched teeth and bare white knuckles, it does make me slightly uneasy to think of the drivers of these unregulated death traps colluding with the pot smoking crowd to strike a deal to display these posters on red minibuses in the first place.

Or to put it in simple terms, are Hong Kong minibuses drivers in the habit of flying along at crazy speeds because they are stoned?

11/08/2009 UPDATE: I just found out from a reporter at the South China Morning Post that the owner of the shop is in fact a minibus driver himself.

Oh dear. We're doomed.

Hong Kong Cosplay Bikini Surfboard Shutterbug Madness

Hong Kong never ceases to fill me with wonder and awe. But when I ran into this today the only thing that crossed my mind was, 'why?'

I'm not sure what this photo is trying to say. But at least the colour scheme works. Sort of.

The rest of the set-up is, I must say, slightly odd. What we are actually witnessing here is Hong Kong's very lively 'shutterbug' culture, which is especially active on Sundays. The background is reminiscent of alleyways you might find in the historic medina (المدينة القديمة)‎ of the Morroccan city, Tetuan, whilst the foreground is straight out of last week's Ani-Com fair in Hong Kong.

OK. I promise that is that last freak to be posted to this blog for a while.

A few yards from where that cyan wig surfboard bikini aperture and shutter speed action was going on, I also photographed this delightful kitchen.

Hong Kong Luxury Property it is not.

Hong Kong Dim Sum

Number 1 hargow in the world!

All images and text © Alex Hofford / Image Solutions Ltd. 2011 | Web design in Hong Kong by Ugli © 2011