Caught by a cold snap


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 05 Jan 2003

By Wong Sai Wan

WINTER set in on Hong Kong and Southern China suddenly last month and caught many people off-guard; on Dec 8 the temperature fell sharply by more than 10°C after weeks of sunny weather and temperatures in the mid-20s. 

In the following two weeks, the cold north winds continued to blow across Southern China and Hong Kong. For the first time in decades, snow fell in various parts of Guangdong. 

Then on Boxing Day, Hong Kong awoke to the coldest day in December in three years. The Hong Kong Observatory recorded a temperature of 6.8°C in urban Tsim Sha Tsui. 

Out in the New Territories, the thermometer showed negative figures. That day, 12 people were reported to have died as a result of exposure although the government and welfare bodies opened shelters for the homeless and the poor. 

The Senior Citizens Home Safety Association reported that hundreds of elderly people, some of them living alone, had called for help because of the cold snap. 

Association executive director Timothy Ma Kam Wah said 540 senior citizens called up between midnight and 5.45pm on Dec 26. 

“Most of the calls were about cold-related ill-health or accidents. Thirty-three callers were taken to hospital.” 

The Home Affairs Department opened 11 temporary shelters. According to reports, more homeless people took refuge at these shelters this winter. 

“More people used the shelters this year; it could mean that more people are living on the streets,” said Agnes, a shelter volunteer. 

The homeless are given a hot meal and blankets but, according to Agnes, welfare bodies were finding it difficult to raise funds for its charity work. 

“Our resources are stretched to the limit. If it gets any colder and more poor people seek our help, we will have to draw on our reserves,” she added. 

The Hong Kong business community, however, was quick to react to the sudden weather change. Clothing shops changed their window dressings to match the cold snap. 

One shopping chain even started putting out weather warnings next to its sweaters and jackets. 

Winter also means a switch in dishes to ward off the cold, and this is a boon to certain retailers. 

The Vegetable Marketing Organisation said that with the high demand for hotpot, vegetable prices had gone up 30% to 60%. Hotpot is similar to the Malaysia steamboat and is known in Hong Kong as Fo Wor in Cantonese. 

A reduction in vegetable supplies from the mainland because of the cold weather contributed to the price surge. Vegetable farmers at Ta Kwu Ling in the New Territories were also pulling vegetables from the fields early in the morning to prevent them from dying. 

Another consequence of the sudden onset of winter has been the return of the Avian Flu. Since the first outbreak about four years ago, this disease, commonly called the Bird Flu, has made an annual appearance each time the weather turns cold. 

The latest bird flu scare was sparked by the death of more than 1,000 chickens at a farm in Ta Kwu Ling. 

Initial tests indicated the presence of the H5 virus that two years ago caused the death of six people and the slaughter of all birds in Hong Kong. 

About 16,000 chickens on the farm were slaughtered but about 5,000 delivered to the Cheung Sha Wan Wholesale Market had already been sold. Officers of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department yesterday distributed vaccines to chicken farms in Ta Kwu Ling. 

An outbreak was reported at a bird park sanctuary in Kowloon where different types of birds were found dead from the disease. The park was closed for cleaning. 

During last year’s outbreak, about 700,000 poultry in the Yuen Long area were culled to prevent the spread of the virus. The culling exercise has always been unpopular with farmers and retailers who claim they were not adequately compensated. 

As a result of the latest scare, the wholesale price of chickens fell by about 30% and retailers complained of poor business. 

As for humans, the sudden drop in temperature increased the cases of influenza. 

According to the Health Department's influenza surveillance system, the rate of influenza-like illness among patients seen by private doctors was 47.8 per 1,000 consultations for the week ending Dec 21, 2002, compared with 38.7 per 1,000 for the same period the previous year. 

At government outpatient clinics, the rate was four per 1,000 consultations compared with 2.6 per 1,000 in 2001. 

Dr Thomas Tsang, the department’s Community Medicine consultant, urged those prone to colds to avoid crowded places, something that was difficult to do over the Christmas and New Year period. 

On Christmas Eve, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at various popular sites. The throng at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui left behind 13 tons of rubbish. 

The revellers defaced the walls around the centre and even spray-painted palm trees along the Kowloon waterfront. 

An unruly reveller, responding to a TV reporter's question on whether he felt sorry for those who had to clean up the mess, said: “It's their job. They are paid to do it.” 

And what if he was fined for littering? 

“It's only HK$600 (RM295). Give it to them,” the teenager said indignantly. 

The authorities reacted strongly to such attitude by taking various measures for the New Year’s Eve celebrations at the same place. The tree trunks were wrapped in plastic and more anti-littering messages were posted all over the place. 

Police personnel were ordered to come out in force and stop illegal hawkers from selling water-based spray paint to revellers. 

Still, 10 palm trees were sprayed with paint on New Year’s Eve but all were unharmed because of the plastic wrapping. 

More than 300,000 people, mostly youngsters, ushered in the New Year along the Tsim Sha-Tsui-Kowloon waterfront while about 50,000 others partied at Time Square, Victoria Park and Lan Kwai Fong. 

About 1,200 police officers began to move in on the crowd at Tsim Sha-Tsui at about 12.30am after thousands of revellers refused to disperse and started throwing neon sticks. Several people were hospitalised with head injuries. 

The police were jeered for doing their job and only managed to clear the area by 2am. 

The authorities were taken aback by the vandalism and lack of respect for the police. 

Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho said the government would review its crowd-control measures. 

“We will not tolerate acts that infringe on other people's freedom, endanger public safety or damage public property. Laws will be strictly enforced while allowing the public to have fun when celebrating,” Ho said. 

His boss’ wife Betty Tung went one step further and criticised the people for their lack of civic-mindedness. 

The wife of Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa, who joined volunteers to clean up the mess at Tsim Sha Tsui, said the people should not just complain about the vandalism. 

“People always ask why this sort of thing happens. Hong Kong people are best at complaining. They should come out and do something about it,” she said. 

The saddest tale of this early winter was of an 80-year-old woman who was found begging along a pedestrian walkway. According to Apple Daily, her 50-year-old son forced her to beg while he went gambling. He returned to take her money after losing at a mahjong parlour. 

Although mother and son insisted that nothing was wrong, many readers were horrified by the front-page story that ran with a picture of the son walking away from the mother as she lay on the ground begging. 

The publicity given to the Christmas and New Year chaos has been more than an embarrassment to the people of Hong Kong who have always presented themselves as cultured and law-abiding citizens. 

Perhaps it has something to do with the cold. 

  • Wong Sai Wan is Editor, East Asia Bureau, based in Hong Kong (e-mail: saiwan@thestar.com.my )  

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