Glimmers of Green from Southeast Asia

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Edmonton, Alberta.

We wrote this piece, about our travels in Asia, for the June, 1999 edition of New Internationalist Magazine.

We’re city kids. And just like most people in the western world we grew up on a diet of stories dished up by the corporate media. The news of doom and gloom was getting us down, so we hit the road on an ecological odyssey we call Greenspiration. Our mission: to track down, document and share inspiring ecological stories, for a change.

With our bicycles, laptop computer and video camera we traversed North America visiting windmill projects, community gardens and even an ecological sewage treatment plant that relies on snails and plants. A jaunt to Cuba reminded us of how, under duress, a country can gracefully reduce oil consumption by 50% by embracing bicycles, renewable energy, and organic agriculture.

JAPAN, December 1997

Aiming our handlebars eastward, we jetted to Japan and began a six month odyssey in south-east Asia.

As Canadian bicycle activists from a country where less than 1% of trips are made by bike, we were tickled to see Japanese of all ages riding jitensha (bikes), as if it were the most natural thing to do (it is!). Multi-story bicycle parking garages at many train stations protected thousands bikes from the elements. Specially designed bicycle escalators (like magical moving carpets) made it easy for cyclists to climb stairs. Car traffic moved at bicycle speeds through narrow streets.

There’s not much green space in Japanese urban communities. In Osaka, we visited a gymnasium designed with a roof that doubled as a hill. This allowed for great savings in energy while creating a much-needed park within this dense city.

Kyoto is an ancient, beautiful city of a thousand temples and elaborate gardens. Nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains, it retains much of its traditional charm. As host city for the international UN Climate Convention, it may be remembered as the place where 10,000 bleary-eyed delegates helped the world move away from the ecological brink. For the first time, the global community agreed to limit our production of greenhouse gases.

We pondered the Japanese word “kiki”, or crisis. When written, it contains two words: danger and opportunity. Global warming is a looming crisis, but there is opportunity, too – opportunity for bikes, urban agriculture, mass transit, conservation, renewable energy, local economics, and green jobs.

We left the frenzied city life behind and hopped a boat to the sub-tropical Amami islands in south western Japan. Grunting over mountain passes, we swooped through thick green forests that stretched unbroken to the sea. It seems unjust that these forests are intact while Japanese corporate giants like Daishowa and Mitsubishi clearcut Canada’s boreal forests for disposable chopsticks and fax paper.

We discovered some interesting approaches towards saving water. The toilets, at which one squats, have two flush modes: small or large. And as the tank is refilling, the water runs through a spout under which you can rinse your hands. Shower your body clean before you enter the bath. Bath water doesn’t go down the drain – it stays in the tub to be used again and again.

In the land of the rising sun, much of the electricity comes from nuclear power. But we were impressed to see that almost every tenth roof was adorned with solar panels for hot water. The government underwrites much of the cost.

TAIWAN – Slow Boat, No Hurry

After thirty six hours rocking and rolling through the East China Sea from Okinawa, Japan we were glad to touch land at the port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Bikes and boats are a natural combination: neither are too fast, they’re ecological, sociable, and pleasingly relaxing. No need to unload the bike as you wheel it into the boat. Grab what you need, climb the stairs, and stare out at the endless blue horizon. Arriving at your destination you just untie the bike, roll down the ramp and presto – you’re in the heart of the old city.

Pedalling into Kaohsiung a pack of lawnmowers descended upon us, or at least that’s what it sounded like. It was a horde of scooters, whizzing, belching, swarming and surrounding us. By the end of the day we were covered by a thin layer of grime from the unburned sooty fuel.

In the town of Chiku, we visited a wetland slated to be transformed into an oil refinery and steel mill. If the project proceeds, the local fishers’ livelihood (20,000 people) will be destroyed, as will much of the last remaining habitat of the black-faced spoonbill. Only 400 of these gorgeous, egret-like wading birds remain in the world, and three quarters of them winter here. Too bad spoonbills can’t vote.

Being a vegetarian in Taiwan was a shock. As we roamed the bustling streets we were assaulted by heaps of octopus tentacles, piles of dead frogs, boiling pools of entrails, and hanging carcasses. But vegetarian restaurants are also common. How do you recognize them? A swastika, believe it or not. To us it symbolizes evil and extermination. But Buddhists have been using the swastika, actually its mirror image, since long before the Nazis appropriated it.

HONG KONG – Island of the Walkers

Close your eyes and imagine your neighbourhood without all the cars. That’s what we discovered on enchanted Lamma Island. It’s just forty minutes by ferry from Hong Kong. With a population of 6.5 million, Hong Kong is the densest place on earth, jammed with towers shooting up like a bamboo forest.

Pedestrians in Hong Kong are herded off the street onto elevated walkways, jammed shoulder to shoulder in a heaving mob of humanity. Underground, during rush hour, a subway train snakes by every minute swallowing up thousands of people at a time. Sardines would find it cramped.

But there are signs of sanity. The most unusual but elegant of public conveyances is the pedestrian escalator to mid levels. From the centre of Hong Kong a series of covered, outdoor escalators snake up the mountain. Such conveyances – escalators – are common in private buildings. Hong Kong proves that they can work well in public spaces too.

The drone of the beehive fades into a hum as we escape on the breezy ferry ride to Lamma. As the boat pulls away a postcard downtown view of Hong Kong appears. Roughly translated, Hong Kong means ‘fragrant harbour’. These days the fragrance is more likely a whiff of industrial effluent and sewage.

Down below in the not-so-fragrant water a small remnant population of bubblegum-pink dolphins slowly succumbs to the churn of boat propellers and pollution of their watery home. A couple of hundred still survive in the region, but their population is dropping precipitously by up to 15% each year.

As the ferry snuggles up to the pier on Lamma Island the sound of shoes replaces the drone of cars. Far from the General Motors it is generously quiet. The only cars around are the toys that children play with. And no cars means lots of safe space for ambling kids.

Over 7,000 people live on this hilly 14 sq. km. island of scarlet hibiscus blossoms and towering banana plants. Clumps of jungle host hooting birds, moaning frogs, giant night snails and butterflies.

Hand carts haul heavy goods around. Stores and restaurants are serviced by the four wheeled trolleys which can handle a thousand pounds no sweat.

As the climate cooks and species disappear under pavement, it’s a relief to know that without cars other things happen. Why not have car-free, island neighbourhoods within western cities? With a mix of escalators, hand trolleys, shoe canvas, and wild green spaces our cities could be liveable again. We know it. We’ve walked there, and it’s magic.

But even paradise has wrinkles. Three towers, each 70 stories high, vent the exhaust from the mammoth coal fired power plant. Three and a half million tonnes of coal – ten thousand tonnes a day – are burned annually to supply electricity to Hong Kong. Now the utility is planning to expand, and perhaps also build an incinerator to burn garbage.

The challenge for Hong Kong and other industrializing countries is to leapfrog polluting, inefficient technologies and invest in energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy that don’t cost the earth. Many utilities around the world have switched onto a more sustainable path, allowing us all to breathe a little easier.

CHINA – Food for Thought

Travelling by bicycle in China you are not alone. With a population of 1.2 billion, everybody seems to be riding. Often a single bike will have a couple and a child perched atop it. Towering piles of cardboard for recycling, huge bunches of cooking wood, and all manner of goods move around by pedal power.

While riding in Guangxi province in southern China, we noticed the absence of the cyclists’ bane – chasing dogs. Here dogs are rarely pets – they are more likely to be dinner.

It was heart wrenching to roam through the Qing Ping Market in Guangzhou (Canton). It was packed with live animals awaiting slaughter: some for sustenance, others for alleged medicinal power. Sixty year old turtles would be boiled for their shells and stomachs. Dishevelled cats, cuddly rabbits, various birds, snakes, and beetles awaited their fate. Guangzhou people have a reputation of “daring to eat anything”.

What really turned our stomachs was to see tiger paws, bear gall bladders and rhinoceros horns on sale as “traditional medicines” – all highly illegal.

In the Chinese calendar, this past year was the Year of the Tiger. With this glorious animal on the verge of extinction, now might be a good time to heed the wisdom of animal rights organizations like Hong Kong’s Earth Care. With so many species being pushed towards extinction Earth Care is promoting the use of herbal alternatives to replace animal parts derivatives used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And they maintain that herbal medicines are cheaper and more effective than those derived from animals.

Though we never actually saw the white dragon, we heard of its tale. The story goes that U.S. satellites spotted a white line snaking through parts of China. After investigation it was shown to be a stream of styrofoam litter along the main train line.

Polystyrene foam containers are a common nuisance world-wide: they cause pollution in their production, they are a waste of resources since they are used only once, they don’t biodegrade for hundreds of years, and they release toxic gases when burned. The styrene may even be a health concern as it can leach out of the packaging and into human fat tissue.

The embarrassed Chinese officials decided to eliminate the problem by banning the use of styrofoam take-out containers altogether. Imagine that!

Production of alternative, disposable boxes made from bamboo, sugar cane stock, straw or hay is well underway. A dozen Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing have already banned the use of styrofoam take-out food containers.

CHINA – New Age for Sewage

China is gettting its shit together.

Throughout China biogas is actively encouraged by the state. In the southern city of Yulin, Guangxi province, farming households are being equipped with biogas units. Each unit transforms human and pig waste into gas for cooking, lighting, and heating water. Already 400,000 people use biogas in Guangxi province alone.

Each household, along with their four pigs, produces enough biogas for all their cooking, lighting and hot water. And since electricity is expensive, a biogas unit can save money. Biogas is a lot more convenient than other energy forms, such as collecting firewood for cooking. By using the biogas instead of wood, fewer trees are chopped down.

State employee Zhuo Youxing had this to say: “Of course I am happy with the success of the project. I am serving the people.”

VIETNAM – War in the Streets

The American military, during the war in Vietnam, inaugurated a new form of war. It became known as “ecocide”: the military attempted to destroy the ecosystem by pouring massive quantities of herbicides from the sky in order to force peasants to abandon the countryside.

Three decades later the battle against nature continues unabated. Now the war is in the cities: cities which survived decades of war are now suffering under a pallor of exhaust. The streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are being strangled, slowly, by aggressive, honking motorized vehicles. One might call it “urbacide”.

Early in the morning, the streets are so calm you can hear birds singing from cages hanging in the trees. By 8 a.m., under the shady trees of the Old Quarter, the streets are full to capacity as activity bursts forth. Motorcycles are everywhere, weaving, accelerating, and swerving within a hair’s breadth.

Through this anarchic traffic jumble, cone-hatted women amble carrying bouncing baskets of bananas and pineapples, bread, or ready-to-eat sticky rice, and more. Everything glides by in woven bamboo baskets elegantly balanced on a bamboo pole. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of shopping: instead of going somewhere for the goods, the “basket of goods” comes to you.

Make-shift restaurants, complete with a few stackable stools and a coal-fired stove, line the sidewalks. Kids play soccer, weaving around the pedestrians. Like cruise missiles, peddlers hone in on tourists, trying to sell postcards or army-green pith helmets.

Another type of peddler pushes a ride in a cyclo – the ubiquitous, three-wheeled, pedal-powered taxi. This unique Vietnamese vehicle is custom-made in small shops around the country. It is a popular mode of transportation for tourists and locals alike. And when required, a cyclo can as easily be used for transporting large, bulky, and heavy freight.

But everybody seems to want a motorbike. One of the more popular brands is the Honda Dream. But with everybody driving their Dream, the city is turning into a nightmare.

Not everyone is happy with the rapid motorization. Ms. Nguyen Linh, of the Vietnam Women’s Union, told us: “Many people feel regret with the current situation that the Vietnamese are forgetting the bicycle… Many people miss the romantic past, it was quieter and less polluted. And of course, bicycles are good for the environment.”

It is hard to imagine what Hanoi was like just five years ago when there were virtually no annoying motorcycles. Or ten years ago when streetcars still plied the leafy boulevards.

In the countryside, the bicycle is still commonly used. Once we rode in a special lane reserved for bicycles and water buffalo (no joke). They may have horns, but at least they don’t honk obnoxiously.

Piecing it Together

We witnessed the tragedy of millions of motorcycles roaring down Asian streets and sickening the atmosphere. The last of the tiger’s paws are being cut from the wild and sold in Chinese markets while we wonder what can be done.

On the other hand, we found powerful and inspiring initiatives that the over-industrialized world can learn from. If the bicycle can play such a prominent role in Osaka, why not in Mexico City? How about biogas for Boston or London?

We were touched most deeply by the persistent generosity we received. Although we were strangers as we pedalled through Asia, peasants would freeze and then try to talk to us or write things down. The alien characters were no help at all. But with some pointing, laughter, and patience we were able to bridge barriers of language and culture.

Intuitively, people wanted to be helpful. Perhaps, as we all become aware of the damage we are doing to our home planet, such generosity will blossom. And if we learn from each other’s innovation and creativity, the pieces of a whole and healthy planet can fall into place.

Angela and Tooker are traversing Canada on a millennial Greenspiration Odyssey. You can reach them at: greenspiration at and read their exploits at: