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Monday, June 22, 2015, 09:02

Cheerful soldier of a green war

By Sylvia Chang

At 66, retired civil servant Lam Chiu-ying remains a tireless crusader for protecting HK’s country parks from being built upon. Sylvia Chang met the bubbly conservationist.

Cheerful soldier of a green war
Lam Chiu-ying sets high value on biodiversity out in the fields of Long Valley, where, he says, hides another Hong Kong. (P hotos by E dmond Tang / China Daily)

Even as director of the Hong Kong Observatory, Lam Chiu-ying waged a battle behind the scenes, stirring up public opinion against government environmental policies he despised.

Now 66, and more than six years into retirement, Lam, freed of the constraints on public employees, has become an outspoken critic of the government. This respected meteorologist has undergone a transformation, to become a “keyboard” warrior, as he describes himself, attacking government policy on construction of a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport, and attacking the plan to turn Lantau Island into a massive urban expanse. But the cause about which he is most passionate is the encroachment of development into country parks.

Within the first three years of his retirement, Lam gave approximately 280 lectures and speeches, had 60 interviews, and attended 330 meetings, volunteer projects, and 30 academic conferences. He also published a book. The topics on which he has taken public positions range from climate change and education to sustainable development and conservation. He promised in his blog, “Never take up a cause to earn money but do things for the good of society as much as possible”.

Sitting at his keyboard, lambasting what he considers to be errant policy, Lam envisages his words and ideas spreading like a virus, arousing a spirit among the younger generations to oppose what he considers the parasitic hunger to turn over every piece of land to developers.

He says he is determined to fight “injustices” that do no good for Hong Kong. “Many people are aware of the injustice. But they can’t speak out because of their position, so I will,” he adds.

Lam Chiu-ying considers himself a “Kennedy Town local”. He was born in Kennedy Town, at the western end of Sai Wan on Hong Kong Island. He grew up in a grass-roots environment, living among the poorest people in the city. Maybe, he reflects, he’s just a “lucky dog” who feels he has been blessed by the city and wants to give something back, as his way to say thank you. During a three-hour interview with China Daily, he must have repeated at least 10 times: “Hong Kong treats me well” and “I want Hong Kong to be well”.

Cheerful soldier of a green war
The eggs of channeled apple snail, a species of snail with gills and an operculum.

Man full of energy

Lam met with China Daily to talk about the personal crusade he has carried on since retirement. The day, mostly sunny, had been interspersed with a few scattered showers.

Lam arrived at 9:20 am, 10 minutes before the time we had agreed to meet. In the hall of Sheung Shui Station, he stood waiting, dressed in a deep blue shirt bound in brown pants made of denim, with a vivid black schoolbag on his back.

On the way to Ho Sheung Heung by minibus, Lam mentioned his love of learning languages. “I know seven languages, Teochew, Cantonese, English, Putonghua, Japanese, German and French,” said Lam, who used his language skills to obtain information and to lobby people in different countries. Now approaching his seventies, he is still learning foreign languages.

“The busier I am, the more time I spend learning languages,” Lam said. For him, learning a language is a way to relax.

The minibus arrived at Ho Sheung Heung station. Lam headed for Long Valley.

Much of the interview was conducted on that walk across the northern part of the New Territories. He pointed out species of birds, imitating their calls. “Ko-el, ko-el,” he cooed, mimicking the voice of an Asian koel.

Lam speaks out volubly about social and environmental issues. “I’ll never stage a protest,” he proclaims, unless of course it’s to demonstrate against “anyone touching the country parks”. He sees the parks as symbols of the city’s good fortune, offering a breathing space for its people.

His conversation is interrupted by bursts of laughter that seem to bubble up from deep inside him. But he’s all seriousness when discussing country parks. “Now nobody dares touch an inch of these,” he avers, carefully articulating each word. He declares that only when land reserved in the New Territories are fully developed should the government consider building houses in a country park.

“This is my home, positively my home,” he said. He is determined to remain here for the rest of his life, even if he is “cast away by the city” or “the city is thrown into turmoil”.

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