William Yeung Kwong-yu
‘The world’s second best’ asteroid chaser
Since William Yeung Kwong-yu (also known as Bill Yeung) discovered his first asteroid back in 2000, the 51-year-old amateur astronomer has become the second most prolific stargazer on the planet, finding a further 2,600 asteroids in the past decade alone. Famously, he also mapped one mysterious object which created a huge international buzz in the astronomical field (it was eventually found to be a part of the rocket that propelled Apollo 12 into space). He’s also a bit of a chatterbox. “I’m probably the worst interviewee you can think of,” he grins. “You don’t have to worry about insufficient information with me, but you’ll have a hard time to ask the next question.” Yeung certainly has a restless, inquisitive mind. He’s as keen on the species of Hong Kong’s natural habitat as he is on the city’s quixotic stock market. But it’s the unknowable starry void that really fires his imagination. “I love asteroids specifically because you can observe them moving while other celestial bodies remain relatively still,” he says.
Yeung emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in 1987 to work in the investment business. “Like most Hongkongers I considered earning money the most important thing,” he says. But after his business failed he read an article about how non-professionals can use relatively simple equipment to track asteroids. Yeung decided to try it himself, and was soon hooked. “I spent seven years in America searching for asteroids!” he says.
The first year he lived in a trailer in the Arizona desert. The second year he settled on a small hilltop where ‘you can see a full 360-degree horizon’. Here he built his own amateur observatory with a set of four telescopes and named it ‘Desert Eagle’. He was soon discovering as many as 70 asteroids in a single night.
“That was the happiest time in my life,” he tells Time Out. “I enjoyed the solitude. I watched stars, read books and travelled. I had a lot of time to think about the meaning of life, and finally I realised that you can enjoy your life with the most basic materials as long as you are doing what you like. It’s sad that most Hong Kong people can’t see this. They almost never stop working in order to earn more money. But in the last day of your life, what really matters is not how much you have earned, but how much you have lived your life.”
Naming a heavenly body is probably the most romantic thing in the world, but it’s a headache for Yeung. “I name my asteroids after individuals,” he says. “It’s not necessary to let everybody know my personal appreciation.” Among his discovered asteroids are ‘Yeungchuchiu’ (楊注潮, Yeung’s father), ‘Tsuihark’ (徐克, after the film director), ‘Linchinghsia’ (林青霞, after the Hong Kong actress), ‘Spielberg’ (naturally), ‘Aiweiwei’
(艾未未, China’s dissident artist), ‘Gaoyaojie’ (高耀潔, China’s AIDS activist), and ‘Potato’, presumably because he likes spuds.
In 2008, Yeung moved back to Hong Kong to take care of his elderly parents. Shocked by the bright city neon, he became involved with combatting light pollution. As the president of Hong Kong Astronomical Society, and a member of the government appointed Task Force on External Lighting, his new goal is establish a law that requires all non-necessary city lighting such as outdoor advertising and building decorations to be switched off after 11pm. “It really terrifies me when I hear people saying their children don’t believe there are stars in Hong Kong’s sky,” he says. “This new law can really save lots of energy. It also helps companies improve their public image as well as allowing people to sleep at night.”
But it is Australia where he wishes to spend the rest of his life. “It has little light pollution and the sky there is so clear that it’s perfect for star-watching.” Currently involved with ‘property management’ as well as writing a book about his astrological adventures, Yeung has big plans for the future: “By then I should have saved enough money to buy a large telescope in Australia so I can try new things in the astronomical field.” Watch the skies. Shirley Zhao