The Fragrant Harbour: Air Pollution in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s skyline, viewed from the Kowloon waterfront, is one of the most iconic in the world. The city’s Chinese name translates literally to ‘fragrant harbour’, but rather than sweet fragrances, tourists are today greeted by the pungent odour of ferry exhaust fumes; Hong Kong is notorious for its air pollution. One of the most densely populated cities on earth, Hong Kong suffers from local vehicular (shipping and road) pollution as well as foul air which drifts into the Special Administrative Region from the heavy industries on the Pearl River Delta in mainland China. Air quality fluctuates throughout the year, with prevailing north easterly winds bringing in smog from the mainland in winter, whilst ocean winds and heavy rain clear the air in summer (Zhang, 2011: 57).

It is tempting to see the haze which clouds Hong Kong’s skyline as merely an unfortunate ‘”externality” of urbanisation, modernisation, and development’ (Véron 2006: 2096), in a city, and a region, which has seen massive economic growth in recent decades. However, these underlying polluting processes may be seen as part of a system of the ‘anthropogenic manufacture of air’ (Graham, 2015: 192). Shifting our viewpoint to recognise the ubiquitous human interference with what should be a given and universally accessible resource, we can begin to see how ‘unequal power relations are “inscribed” in the air’ (Bryant 1998).

Air Quality Monitoring Stations – EPD

The monitoring of air quality in Hong Kong by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) comprises a network of sixteen air quality monitoring stations, the city’s ‘backbone of air quality management’ (Buzzelli, 2008: 502). Monitors are located around the city (see figure 2), thirteen being classed as ‘general’ monitors, and only three as ‘roadside’ monitors. Whilst useful in providing general information and forecasts for air quality, there are obvious shortcomings in this system. The EPD website notes that the ‘general’ monitoring stations are usually located ‘at roof level 4-6 storeys high’, a height which hardly seems representative of the air which residents breathe. Meanwhile, even with the government having declared roadside pollution the ‘greatest daily health risk to the people of Hong Kong’, roadside air quality is only monitored at three locations in a city of over 7 million people.

The empirical data produced at these stations already shows frequent violations of World Health Organisation guidelines on air quality, whilst clearly not accounting for microclimates which concentrate air pollution in certain places. This includes the trapping of pollutants in canyons between densely built high-rises, with concentrations highest in the first 15m (Graham, 2015: 204). It appears, then, that official monitoring may fail to represent ‘localised human exposures to traffic pollution’ (Buzzelli, 2008: 513), in a way which downplays the risks of air pollution. The distressing reality is that 300,000 doctor’s visits in just one month were linked to air pollution in 2017.

Hong Kong’s broader political landscape suggests that public health may be second to international image in terms of incentives for tackling air pollution. Government funded PR campaigns proudly brand Hong Kong as ‘Asia’s World City’, part of a concerted effort to attract the tourism, investment and wealthy working expats which are integral to the economy. In a clear example of this kind of image-threat, Timothy Choy highlighted how Hong Kong’s air nearly prevented Disney executives from giving a theme park the go-ahead, out of concern that smog would taint the cherished ‘family image’ of the Disney brand (Graham, 2015: 200). As such, we can begin to see air quality policies in Hong Kong as attached not only to public health concerns, but also to a sort of global-city vanity which prioritises capital. Such vanity manifests itself in the tacky blue-sky billboards erected on the Kowloon waterfront.

This initial look into the production of the problem of Hong Kong’s air quality is our starting point in an investigation of the political and ecological co-production of the issues facing the city. Having spent time living and working there, this exploration will be informed by my own experiences and observations of Hong Kong, alongside research into the city’s negotiated identity, and the urban injustices hidden behind its shimmering facades. Join me as I continue my encounter with the precarious political ecology of one of our planet’s most extreme manifestations of urbanism.


Buzzelli, M., 2008, ‘A Political Ecology of Scale in Urban Air Pollution Monitoring’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 33, no. 4, 502-517

Graham, S., 2015, ‘Life Support: The political ecology of urban air’, City, 19:2-3,192-215

Véron, R., 2006, ‘Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 38, 2093-2109

Zheng, M., 2011, ‘Hong Kong: Particulate Air Pollution and Health Impacts’, Encyclopaedia of Human Health, 56-61

Feature Image: Tokyoahead, Wikimedia Commons, 2007:

2 thoughts on “The Fragrant Harbour: Air Pollution in Hong Kong

  1. This is a really interesting post — I have written a post on the poor air quality in Barcelona, which at the time shocked me but compared to the levels in HK are nothing. I think you raise a really important issue with the lack of effective monitoring of air quality, both for roadside air and street level — it is shocking that the government does not do more about the visible levels of pollution, even if as you point out these measures may be motivated by PR rather than health concerns.

    Given the reductions in air pollution that have been seen in China’s large cities due to the coronavirus lockdown, it will be interesting to see at what rate the pollution levels increase once restrictions are lifted, or whether the government takes it as an opportunity to make improvements in the city’s air quality.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Alex, thanks for your comment. I enjoyed your post about Barcelona’s air pollution and yes I think we’ve both seen that pollution monitoring is actually almost as important as the actual pollution levels. Air monitoring should be the key to effective mitigation policies, and I think there are hidden political objectives which may actively work against initiatives to improve monitoring, especially in relation to PR and tourism.

    I’m also really interested to see how pollution levels may change with the implementation and gradual easing of coronavirus lockdowns. One can hope that the public, seeing drastic improvements in air quality in this short periods, may start to realise just how severe the pollution situation is under normal circumstances, and thereby start to demand long-term change. Another interesting point we’re seeing around the world is speculation that the reduction in pollution we are seeing may actually, although somewhat intangibly, reducing deaths related to air pollution. It seems bizarre, but we could even be in a situation where the pandemic, whilst an absolute tragedy, could result in lives being indirectly saved by improved air quality as cities experience lockdown.


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