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Sustainability warrior: Weather Man to Conservationist, Lam Chiu Ying, ex-Director, HK observatory

From a young age Chiu Ying loved star gazing. He was also bizarrely aware of the immensity of the universe versus the minuteness of humans. His interest in astronomy, physics and nature grew leaps in university as did his acknowledgement of the importance of the latter to man.

This was in the 1970s. At that time, the concept of environmental protection as we know it today was nascent. Chiu Ying was intrigued by it. He had never been comfortable with pollution…

After his bachelor’s degree in BSc Chiu Ying left to the UK to study Meteorology. Meteorology he specifies, is the study the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere so as to forecast the weather. After coming back to Hong Kong, he very naturally joined the Hong Kong Observatory.

“My hobby became my job. I was the weather man 35 years with observatory”. Hong Kong observatory, as some may know was started in 1883 is responsible for “monitoring and forecasting weather, as well as issuing warnings on weather-related hazards”. Says Chiu Ying sipping his cup of chai that he had ordered for both of us at the United Services Recreation Club, near Jordan. “Wow!! That must be wonderful to work in the area of your interest.”, I said excitedly.

“Actually, it is not good, not good at all!!” He says, “You have to have a limit between work and life after work. Otherwise, work become your life. So, in my case, I had to find some other hobby.”

“From there on began my quest for my next hobby…. I dabbed into Buddhism, western dancing, went for Chinese music classes and finally went for bird watching.”, Chiu Ying says laughingly. His interest in bird-watching started when he saw birds in the Hong Kong Cemetery at Happy Valley when he was in his twenties.

Then he took “Hong Kong Birds” course at HKU SPACE. After the course, Chiu Ying was definitely sold!!

All weekends all I liked to do was visit different bird habitats. Once the habitats in Hong Kong were all covered, he went across the border, to different places in China. China is a very big and has a very divers habitat from one to another remote region of the country.

In Pic: Chiu Ying guiding young people on a bird watching trip

Lam Chiu Ying today is a widely-respected bird-watcher. He served as Chairman of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society between 1997 and 2004, and is now its Honorary President. He is a co-author of the book, Birds of Hong Kong and South China, the standard field guide for this part of the world.

Conservation of culture and heritage, is another theme close to Lam Chiu Ying’s heart.

Most of us love to leave HK Island at the first opportunity especially in these times when it is difficult to leave Hong Kong. We love to visit villages in the close by or popular islands and discover a new culture and another way of life. Indeed, there’s much to appreciate in the landscape of the villages, its architecture, the way of life …!! But that is not the reality in Hong Kong’s many far flung villages. Many villages are totally or almost totally deserted, with houses in ruins due to population exodus and land not being tilled.

Until early 2021, Chiu Ying was chairman of Hong Kong Countryside Foundation. His eyes light up with pride as he speaks about the re-vitalization of Lai Chi Wo Village is one of his main projects.

Lai chi Wo is a small village in the New Territories. When Chiu Ying started going there in 2009 after his retirement, resident population was 0, with indigenous villagers heading to the city and even overseas in search of a better living. Illegal immigration from China was scaring the villagers away and lack of infrastructure did not help. It was a deserted village.

In Pic: Entrance to the Lai Chi Wo village

Lam Chiu Ying took numerous groups of architects, conservationists an

agricultural specialists to see Lai Chi Wo. Eventually, HKU in partnership with HKCF and others succeeded in formulating a village revitalisation project and securing external funding.

Today about 10 people stay there full time, while 20-30 people stay part time. The project has even succeeded in getting a few of the old resident families to come back to the village. Well done to Chiu and his team for their relentless hard work👏👏.

Lam Chiu Ying says, “Environment and Nature are two different things. The subtle difference between "nature" and "environment" illustrates the evolving relationship between humans and the rest of Planet Earth. Nature used to support the survival of humans. Over the past, agriculture, industrialization and urbanization are man’s attempt to manage Nature and those efforts have enabled human population to grow. But our management effort has apparently made unfathomable impact on Planet Earth. "Environment" is that part of Nature polluted by humans while "environmental protection" is about protecting humans against the harmful effects of such pollution and climate change etc. Environmental protection focuses on people, not Nature. What we should focus on is the conservation of Nature, a much more positive approach.”

In Pic: Climate actions is a cause very close to Chiu Ying's heart

Chiu Ying is an outspoken advocate for the need to respond to man-made climate change and consider himself as a Nature conservationist.

His aim in life is, “to take as little as possible from Nature and leave as little trace as possible on departure.”


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