Mui Wo resident Tom Yam is putting his science background into the fight against city hall, and urging island-lovers to make a stand against the proposed East Lantau Metropolis. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
Tom Yam really knows how to take advantage of his golden years. “I failed at retirement three times,” he begins on this cool, grey morning at Mui Wo’s normally boisterous China Bear. Sure, there’s a little more salt than pepper in Tom’s hair, but he has a youthful face and overall energy that belies his 70 years. We should all be so lucky.
Born in Guangzhou and raised in Hong Kong, Tom came home in 2003 after 40-odd years in the US and six in Shanghai, thanks to a degree in electrical engineering and a PhD in control systems theory. Those 40 years were spent in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (at Wharton), after his first stop in Tennessee. That gave Tom a taste of a world in flux.
“In my time at Tennessee, between 1965 and 1968, there were no black players on the basketball team or the football team. Zero. At the time the university was all white, before the civil rights movement really took hold, but I got a front row view of the South before it did. There were very few Asians, maybe 10, and just a handful from Hong Kong,” he remembers.
From NASA to the SCMP
After university, Tom bounced from one high-profile firm to the next, among them Bell Labs, AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM in management and consulting. And if you insist something isn’t rocket science, be prepared for him to argue from a position of strength – he also worked on the space shuttle programme for NASA.
AT&T took him around the world, most notably to post-Nixon/ Carter China in 1982. “That was an interesting experience. China hadn’t opened up yet,” he recalls. He returned to China in 1995 to run AT&T’s Shanghai office before finally settling back in the SAR.
Admitting to having had three or four careers, Tom’s next “semi- career” was as the science and technology columnist for the South China Morning Post. Describing the job as “totally serendipitous”, Tom says: “I happened to know an editor at the paper and he knew my background. We had lunch and talked about a Sunday science column. The idea was to write so that anyone could understand the topic. There was no specific subject. But making it understandable to the general public was important.”
Tom unofficially partnered with his wife, Kim, herself a journalist and editor (she edits all his work: “We make a good team”), and wrote on science, and later policy issues like waste management and urban planning. When the budget was cut, Hong Kong was left with no local science voice.
ELM Concern Group
These days, in his failed retirement, Tom has become one in the chorus of voices rising in opposition to the government’s proposed future for Lantau. “The things I’m involved in now seem like a full-time job: trying to get Hong Kong people to understand what’s happening on Lantau, specifically at the East Lantau Metropolis,” he says. “We’ve formed the ELM Concern Group with other green groups and community groups, and we’re in touch with legislative councillors. I appear at forums at HKU and there are a few more to come. I’ve worked with The Pearl Report on TVB. Put all those things together and it doesn’t feel like retirement.”
Tom laments losing the fight over the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator construction, despite the Environmental Protection Department’s scepticism and a 20% higher cost than alternative sites. He sees the Shek Kwu Chau decision as “a perfect example” of an out-of- touch bureaucracy: “That does not serve the people of Hong Kong, it serves powerful politicians and local pressure.”
He may not admit it in so many words, but the failure to move the incinerator is a bitter pill, and Tom seems determined not to repeat that failure. As he explains, East Lantau’s development is predicated on destructive landfill, inaccurate population projections (the 2017 projection of nine million has passed), the perception of a lack of available land for development (though 105 public schools remain unused after 15 years), and a blind eye to climate change.
“It doesn’t make sense, never mind the environmental issues. The ecological and environmental equilibrium is very delicate. Development and human traffic is at its limit. If you rip up Lantau you’ll destroy it,” Tom says, clearly frustrated. “I can’t think of anyplace else in the world with 700,000 people living in the middle of the sea. It’s high risk… There are a whole list of options they could explore, but those require leadership and political will. The East Lantau Metropolis project would cost HK$400 billion and take 30 years to complete. It has nothing to do with solving the housing problem right now. It’s not the same issue.”
Tom’s ’60s education really shows when it comes to his and other local concern groups’ position on stopping the HK$250 million in funding for a feasibility study the government is resubmitting for approval this month – one that was dropped in 2014. He urges the public to make its voice known now.
“The awareness issue is hard. We can talk until we’re blue in the face but if the government doesn’t want to listen they won’t,” he admits. “It’s hard to get 50,000 to go to a march. The best we can do is talk to all the district and legislative council councillors and their constituents and hope they spread the word. It’s 400-billion taxpayer dollars and a place for all of Hong Kong to enjoy. It’s not just a Lantau issue.”
But Tom isn’t all work all the time. He and Kim are blessed with two grown children (and three grandchildren) living overseas, and so what free time they have is spent travelling. Not vacationing. Travelling. “Oh we’ve been all over the place,” he begins enthusiastically. “The last vacation was in the Baltic countries – Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad right next to it. We spent two weeks in Syria before civil war broke out there. And we’ve been to nine of the former Soviet Republics.” He and Kim make a strong team away from work too. As far as planning for such massive excursions, Tom admits, “She does it all.”
Tom doesn’t just talk a big game. Hong Kong is home and he’s committed to putting the time into making it better. He’s the kind of guy we need in public office. Would he ever consider a seat on a district council?
He scoffs, and then shakes his head at the thought of the work that actually goes into the job. “Maybe if I was 20 years younger,” he says after a pause. “And I’m supposed to be retired.” Oh yeah. Right.
Images: Andrew Spires courtesy of Tom Yam