A Hong Kong environmentalist – who spent years fighting the government’s construction of an artificial beach in Tai Po – has accused Hong Kong people of treating the environment as “free entertainment.”

The criticisms by Arthur Kwan Chuk-man came as visitors to the controversial, recently-opened Lung Mei Beach shrugged off concerns over potentially harmful black sand discovered on the man-made waterfront.

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Last Wednesday morning dozens of people – many families with young children – flocked to the 200-metre long Lung Mei beach in Tai Po to relax under the blazing sun. At the entrance to the beach and the surrounding area striking green banners advised swimmers to “stay alert,” as jellyfish and sea urchins were spotted recently in the nearby waters.

Long Mei Beach – before and after – use the slider to view. Photo: Google Earth.

According to figures submitted to the legislature on Wednesday, between June 23 to August 15, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) had handled 110 cases of swimmers being pricked after stepping on sea urchins. Separately, the LCSD recorded 51 cases of swimmers getting slightly stung after touching jellyfish in the same period. All cases were said to involve minor injuries.

Tai Po Lung Mei Beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The government-managed beach, which was opened to the public in late June after years of controversy over its environmental impact on the local ecology, also hit the headlines earlier this month, when black sand emerged near the shore after days of pouring rain.

A banner at Tai Po Lung Mei Beach warning swimmers to be aware of jellyfish and sea urchin in the waters near the beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Local ecology expert Billy Hau of the University of Hong Kong had warned swimmers against touching the sand that turned black, saying it could carry harmful bacteria. He also said the water quality at the beach in the Tolo Harbour was not good due to weak water flows in the protected bay.

Black sand found on Lung Mei beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But people visiting Lung Mei beach last week said they were not too worried.

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

A Tai Po resident named Peggy told HKFP that the news about the black sand and injuries caused by sea urchins did not discourage her from bringing her son and daughter to the new beach. She said she believed the substances would not be dangerous to her health if she only spent a few hours there.

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“I don’t come here every day, so I’m not absorbing these [toxins] for a prolonged period. We are in this world where the environment is being polluted basically every second, every minute,” she said, as her son grabbed a handful of sand and dumped it on his beach toy.

Peggy’s son plays with sand on the Tai Po Lung Mei Beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

She went on to praise the man-made beach, which cost over HK$200 million to construct, saying it gave her a sense of being on holiday, taking her back to the time she visited the Japanese island of Okinawa before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“When I first got here and looked out to the sea, it felt like I was in a foreign country,” Peggy said.

Tai Po Lung Mei Beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Another first-time visitor, Mrs Choi, was not too concerned about the environmental quality either. She said she would bring her two children to the artificial beach only once or twice a year.

”I’m not too worried. If we do see a lot of [black sand], then we will leave,” she said.

Rubbish picked by cleaners on Tai Po Lung Mei Beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The future of this beach has just begun. It will take some years to observe whether human [activities] and the environment can co-exist, but I don’t have high hopes.”

Activist Arthur Kwan

Mr. Leung, who lives in the Tai Po district, told HKFP the sand and water quality was “not too bad.” He said he did not encounter anything unusual when he took a dip, adding he would “protect” himself from being jabbed by sea urchins or touching potentially harmful sand near the shore by spending less time in the water.

“Every beach has pollutants, not just this one. I mostly do sunbathing [anyway],” he added.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has regularly conducted water quality analysis at Lung Mei beach. On June 21, two days before the public were granted access, the department rated the water quality as “good,” saying it was “suitable for swimming activities.”

Tai Po Lung Mei Beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But since July 23 the water quality at Lung Mei beach has dropped to “fair,” which the department said was “generally within the normal range of fluctuation of the bacteriological water quality of the [beach].”

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In a phone interview with HKFP last Wednesday, Arthur Kwan, the last active member of an environmental group that vowed to “safeguard Lung Mei,” said he was not surprised by the “level of acceptance” Hongkongers showed to a polluted environment.

“There is a potential danger, but it seems people don’t really mind it. That is the mentality of Hongkongers,” he said.

Arthur Kwan. Photo: Supplied.

“Many people do not treasure the environment, they only treat it as free entertainment. [Whether the sand and water is] dirty or not – people do not think it’s their business,” he added.

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The 62-year-old activist had campaigned against the artificial beach proposal since 2007, conducting fieldwork to challenge the government’s case that Lung Mei had a low overall ecological value.

Gymnodoris sp. (left) and gymnodoris inornata (right) found in Lung Mei before the artificial beach was built. Photo: Arthur Kwan.

Kwan said Lung Mei, where freshwater and seawater merge and which contains sand, rocks and soil, was a “haven for reproduction” for many creatures. He said their findings showed that the project would upset the ecology of Lung Mei, which is home to nearly 400 species, including seahorses rarely seen in Hong Kong waters.

Some local environmentalists had staged protests over the years, while others filed legal challenges in a failed bid to halt the government plan.

Ceriantharia found in Lung Mei, before the artificial beach was built. Photo: Arthur Kwan.

“We knew from the beginning that it was a struggle and that [it] was doomed to fail, because the government did not care about the existence of those creatures. They just wanted to complete the construction of the beach,” Kwan said.

The activist, who went into early retirement to devote more time to environmental causes, admitted that the completion of the artificial Lung Mei beach was a “heavy blow”. Now he is the only person from his concern group who still visits the Tai Po beach to observe and record changes in the environment.

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“My partners don’t really visit the beach anymore…the sense of failure was quite strong and it is very heartbreaking,” he said.

Kwan said the only reason for him to carry on was to prevent similar projects taking place elsewhere in Hong Kong. Any leftover donations to Kwan’s group have been diverted to other environmental groups working against the government’s mammoth Lantau Tomorrow reclamation proposal.

Two girls play with sand on the Tai Po Lung Mei Beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“I hope Lung Mei can be a lesson for Hongkongers who still care about the environment,” Kwan said. “[I want to] draw people’s attention to Lantau… don’t let these things happen again and again.”

The government has plans to create 1,700 hectares of land near Kau Yi Chau and Hei Ling Chau by reclamation. The Lantau Tomorrow Vision project – pitched by Chief Executive Carrie Lam in her 2018 Policy Address – would construct 260,000 to 400,000 residential units on the new landfill, and is being touted as a solution to Hong Kong’s longstanding housing shortage

Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Photo: GovHK.

But critics argue there are cheaper alternatives to the HK$624 billion reclamation plan, while environmental groups want it to be scrapped, saying it could irreversibly damage the marine environment.

Asked whether the artificial beach in Lung Mei has permanently damaged its ecosystem, Kwan said time would tell, adding that most rare species found in the nearby shore were gone, only the ones that were more “resilient” to polluted water, like sea urchins, remained.

Bursatella leachii found in Lung Mei before the artificial beach was built. Photo: Arthur Kwan.

There is a chance that the species which have disappeared could return in a few years’ time, the activist said, but they will most likely settle down on the periphery of the man-made beach, which is still a mudflat.

“With less pollution from the construction work, some species may come back,” Kwan said.

Lung Mei Beach, Tai Po. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“The future of this beach has just begun. It will take some years to observe whether human [activities] and the environment can co-exist, but I don’t have high hopes.”

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.