Winter Air Conditioning in Hong Kong
The first day I arrived in Hong Kong the outside temperature was around 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) which was a major change from Malaysia where daily temperatures hovered in the mid 80s. To combat the temperature change, I bundled up in my winter coat and swapped shorts and sandals for jeans and sneakers. What caught me totally by surprise was my first day inside a Hong Kong commercial environment. We decided to go out to lunch at a food court in a nearby shopping mall. When I walked into the mall I noticed it was cooler inside than outside. At first I just assumed they didn’t have heating systems and temperatures inside were close to those outside. In the States businesses sometimes try to save money by not heating commercial spaces just to save a buck or two. Once we arrived at the restaurant and sat down I noticed the air conditioning was on full blast. At first I thought maybe the thermostat was broken. I kept on my winter coat, scarf and felt like putting on gloves as my fingers quickly became ice sickles. I looked around me and everyone was in heavy winter coats. We ordered hot tea along with winter porridge. After about fifteen minutes I asked about the AC running full blast and how cold it was in the restaurant. I was told that all commercial centers run AC full year round including winter when it was cold out. When I asked why they would run AC when it is cold outside I was told they needed fresh air and it was the old way to get fresh air into the restaurant. For the next week I continued wearing my coat all day long inside and out. Every commercial space we entered had the AC cranked full blast. I started wearing gloves inside to keep my hands warm and was totally miffed as to the logic behind wasting electricity and blasting cold air in winter.
Windows Open on a Winter Night
Another thing that simply didn’t make sense was living conditions in Hong Kong and in particular the insistence of locals to open every single window in an apartment in a sky rise so that freezing cold winter air could gust through the apartment. I looked on in disbelief as our local hostess huddled under two heaving quilts on her living room couch with the window fully open. The temperature in the room was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (about 10 Celsius). I was cold even with a coat and gloves on. I felt like getting a blanket myself. A cold blast of wind travelled down the hall and through the living room and I shivered in disbelief. Using the bathroom was a frigid, shocking experience for both taking a shower and using the toilet. When I asked why they didn’t close the windows so that even without heat the temperature inside would be tolerable with a sweater, I was told it was unhealthy and they needed the fresh air. They thought I was totally nuts for even suggesting they close the windows. I was dumbfounded by their insistence on opening all the windows. It seemed the literally thought they would suffocate without having them open and reacted like I was asking to put a plastic bag over their heads.
Now it Makes Sense
Fast forward three weeks. I started learning about the SARS and H1N1 pandemics that hit Hong Kong in recent years. Both caused deaths in the hundred and illness in the thousands. As a result, the public health system implemented several public policies to prevent something similar in the future. At its core, there are three main things being done to prevent and/or reduce the spread of infections and viruses:
- washing hands (as well as regular cleaning of hand rails etc.)
- increased in-door air circulation
- quarantine of those with a temperature or symptoms of illness (including wearing face masks in public)
The use of AC in winter seems to be a decision based on several factors. Chinese medicine has a tradition on believing lots of fresh air is necessary for good health and this was further locked in place by the recent SARS outbreaks. In addition, living spaces in Hong Kong are really small. Most families of four or five are living in apartments of 900 square feet or less and none of these places have central air circulation. They have window mounted AC systems without heat. They also don’t have dryers for laundry. Almost every place I’ve entered has laundry hanging in windows and bathrooms to dry. When I first hung laundry to dry in the window of my small bedroom the room stank after only a few hours. Opening the windows was the only way to get rid of the terrible smell. Most families are doing laundry in small batches daily just because they can’t hang up a weeks worth of clothing all at once. They was eight or ten clothing items and hang them to dry for a day and repeat the cycle. Something is always handing to dry. If you close windows the small apartment will reek within hours.
The last argument I found for open windows was that locals would rather wear a coat than spend money on heating. Their logic is that putting on a coat or sweater costs nothing but running a heater costs money. They feel its better to have fresh air circulating through living spaces than spending money to heat a place and have it reek of wet clothes. After three weeks I’ve done a complete 360 in my thinking on the topic and short of larger apartments, using cloths dryers and having central heating for air circulation, I believe the open window (even in winter) philosophy actually is the only viable solution given the multitude of problems it solves.