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Pay No Attention to the City Behind the Curtain
Tourists in smog-ravaged Hong Kong have been flocking to a pollution-free Potemkin skyline for their photo ops.

On August 22, a tropical storm moving over the Taiwan Strait swaddled Hong Kong, on China’s southeastern coast, in pollution so dense that some snapshot-seeking tourists didn’t even bother with the real skyline. Instead they resorted to taking photos of themselves against a fake version of it: a series of photographic banners—depicting the city on a crystal-clear day—that had been unfurled, connected, and set up on the banks of Victoria Harbor to form a scenic, blue-sky backdrop.

The banners were originally erected a month ago by Hong Kong’s Architectural Services Department to conceal some minor roadwork, according to Alex Hofford, a photographer who took the images shown here of visitors getting their pictures snapped in front of them. Given that the backdrop is very close to a major tourist pick-up/drop-off point, he wrote in an email, “it’s obviously popular with tourists who don’t want to schlep through the humid smog, and can just snap a shot there, then quickly get back on the bus before choking to death!”

Hofford’s photographs of people photographing other people are mind-bendingly meta. In them, the actual but nearly invisible Hong Kong is relegated to the background, while the foreground is marked by a simulation of the identical skyline view—but in clear, vivid color. On super-smoggy days, people have taken to stopping and posing there: faking it, perhaps appropriately, in a city justly famous for its fakes.

But there’s quite a bit more at stake here for Hong Kong than lost photo ops. The August storm exacerbated an air-pollution problem that was already terrible and only getting worse. According to the Hong Kong-based Clean Air Network (CAN), in the first half of 2013 smog triggered more than 1,600 premature deaths—more than five times the total number of deaths resulting from the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that gripped the city back in 2003. During this six-month period, levels of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and ozone all exceeded World Health Organization air-quality guidelines at every single Hong Kong monitoring station except for one, CAN data show.

Playing a large part in this drama is Hong Kong’s fleet of 18,000 red taxis, which cough up almost 40 percent of the city’s street-level air pollution, according to the Wall Street Journal. Lax emissions-testing laws mean that most of them are roaming the city with worn-out catalytic converters. Old diesel vehicles and industrial plants are also thought to be major contributors to the city’s poor air quality.

A government audit in November indicated that Hong Kong has never once met its own air-quality targets in the 26 years since they were written, as Bloomberg has reported. But now the city appears anxious to address the problem. In early August, local government officials instituted a $19 million subsidy program to help retrofit taxis with new converters. They also announced plans to make those lax emissions-testing laws tougher, and to set up a system of monitors that can catch the heaviest polluters. And in 2014, Hong Kong is expected to adopt a new set of Air Quality Objectives. Officials are also working with authorities in the nearby province of Guangdong to reduce regional pollution.

In the meantime, the backdrop remains as the most unlikely of tourist attractions: a photogenic slice not of the real Hong Kong—the city as it is—but of the aspirational Hong Kong: the city as it hopes to be. And if officials really want to spur public commitment to clearing the skies and cleaning the air, perhaps they ought to leave it in place. When the two side-by-side views of the skyline finally do match up, they'll know they've finally got the genuine article on their hands, not a cheap knock-off.

All images courtesy of Alex Hofford.

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Kristen French graduated in May with a master of arts in science journalism from Columbia University. She has previously written for a number of publications in New York City and Santiago, Chile, including New York magazine, Guernica magazine and Prior to enrolling at Columbia, she was features editor of a business publication called Rep. magazine, found online at MORE STORIES ➔