Tearing down the land of the living
The government’s plans to build new towns in the New Territories could destroy some of the city’s best-preserved rural communities. On the back of mounting protests and public anger, the villagers tell Shirley Zhao why they’re up in arms
Leung Wing-hung and his wife Chan Yuet-wah have been living and farming in Shing Ping, a small village in the northeast New Territories, for more than 50 years. They have toiled on the land in this settlement like so many other families while the urban landscape grows at an awe-inspiring rate just miles away. However, all they have worked for over half a century could soon be taken away from them, leaving them with nothing. And they’re angry about this. Very angry.
The family rent two farmland areas from the government. They have raised their five children in this area. Three of those kids still live with them in their two-storey, 800sq ft house which they built themselves with their own fair hands. This family has worked hard to survive.
The family tells Time Out there is a real sense of community out here in this rural heartland. They say they often offer their vegetables to their neighbours and neighbouring farmers also do the same. A few days ago they received a jar of honey from a beekeeper living a 10-minute walk away. They’re excited about it. “Nowadays you can’t find such high-quality honey from the markets,” chimes Leung with a smile. “Home-made honey tastes 100 times better!”
It’s all sweetness now – however this family could soon lose their home. With the final public consultation of a government plan to develop new towns in the northeast New Territories closing on September 30, the entire Shing Ping village is under threat. It has been earmarked to be ‘resumed and cleared’ to make way for development. Basically, it could be bulldozed by as early as 2017. “I was shocked when I first knew this,” says Leung. “It felt even worse than being robbed!”
First drafted in 2008, the controversial new town plan is set to provide 787 hectares of land – an area of about 41 Victoria Park fields – for the development of three settlements close to the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. These will be Kwu Tung North, Fanling North and Ping Che/Ta Kwu Ling. These towns are designed for residential, governmental, industrial, commercial and recreational purposes, as well as providing nature reserves at the same time. About 54,000 flats – roughly 40 percent being public housing – will be provided for more than 150,000 people. According to the government, these towns are much needed in our city.
But there’s a huge downside. Around 1,700 existing households in these areas, with a total population of 6,500 people, would be affected if the plans go ahead. They face relocation, according to the government. Environmental groups also estimate a loss of about 98 hectares of farmland, amounting to 13 percent of the current cultivated land in the entire city.
The tiny village of Shing Ping falls within the Ping Che/Ta Kwu Ling development area. If the plans get the green light from the government – and that may well happen next year – the green fields and village residences would be demolished to make way for industrial buildings so that ‘special industry’ practices including IT, testing and certification services, and environmental industries can thrive. But, of course, these villagers are questioning the necessity of sacrificing the natural environment just so more industrial buildings can be created when there is already a high vacancy rate of these buildings in the city.
Leung says that earlier this month, the government forbade him and his wife from farming on one of their farmlands. Ignoring the ban, Leung decided to press on. He needed food. He now claims that, as a result, he and his wife were taken to a police station where they were ‘threatened to be charged’ if they kept farming. “The public consultation hasn’t even ended and the government has already taken our livelihood,” he complains.
Feeling their voices have been ignored after two previous stages of public consultation (in 2009 and 2010), the angry villagers are urging the government to halt the final decision on the plans so that longer, ‘genuine’ consultations can be carried out once the current period ends. They say they want their demands – including compensation issues – to be considered.
“We’ve been living here for three generations,” says Leung. “We built our house brick by brick from scratch. We are familiar with our neighbours. We don’t want to leave. If we had to move eventually, the government must first help us rebuild our village elsewhere in the same district.”
This round of consultation is expected to be the last one before the plans go under government scrutiny. The villagers, however, are upset because the government has still not produced a plan for their relocation and compensation – although it has set aside a 3.2 hectare strip of land that ‘may also be used for reprovisioning the affected houses’.
“Over half of the affected villagers are very old. They can’t afford the sudden change of lifestyle,” says Lee Siu-wah, a 40-year-old renovator who started the Kwu Tung North Development Concern Group. “We want to maintain our living environment. We don’t want to move into residential buildings. Without a mutual agreement on this, we will fight with all our strength.”
On August 18, officials cut short a town hall consultation meeting in Fanling North because the venue was too small to contain hundreds of villagers who were protesting in force. They also cancelled another meeting at Ping Che/Ta Kwu Ling, scheduled for two days later, saying they needed to find a larger venue. Later, the government decided to prolong the consultation till September 30, while the original consultation was set to end a month earlier.
“The whole plan is misplaced!” says Leung Kwai-ming, whose village is covered by the Fanling North development area. Half of the village, including his house, small garden and fishpond, will become the site for the Police Driving and Traffic Training Division as well as a shooting range, while the other half will be preserved for agriculture. “How can you cut a complete village and ecosystem into two different things?” he asks. “All the development areas should be reserved for agriculture so we can teach our next generation that hardship comes before harvest.”
Billy Hau Chi-hang, one of the six ‘expert panel’ members for the plan, admits the government hasn’t paid much attention to the local agricultural industry. “There’s a lot of land in Hong Kong suitable for farming,” says the assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences. “The agriculture industry is important to our sustainability. Now most of HK’s food is imported – but when sudden disasters come up, what do we do?” Hau suggests the land slots designated for parks and artificial green zones be kept as farmlands. “Why can’t farmland exist in the centre of a town? We need to think outside the box.”
Cho Kai-kai, 23, co-founded an organic farm in Fanling North. She says the three areas should not have been chosen. She adds there are 2,000 hectares of unoccupied land in the New Territories but most is reserved for indigenous villagers to build ‘small houses’, Some of the rest belongs to big private developers. Cho reckons the areas were chosen because most people living there are non-indigenous villagers who have no entitlement to land and thus can be easily ‘removed’ with low compensation.
In the 1950s and 60s, more than two million people fled to Hong Kong due to Mainland turmoil (blame the Civil War and Cultural Revolution for starters…). The then Hong Kong government found it difficult to accommodate all the refugees, so it allowed them to live temporarily on the land owned by the indigenous peoples and the government. The refugees built their houses – so-called ‘squatter huts’ – on the borrowed land and they rented some additional space for farming. The initial purpose of public housing was to accommodate the homeless squatter dwellers after a fire consumed one of the city’s largest squatter zones. Although there are no statistics available showing the current squatter population, the Lands Department estimated, in 2010, that more than 400,000 have remained here.
Today, those who live in squatter developments often find themselves vulnerable towards government development plans and private developers who have been buying land across Hong Kong’s suburban areas, say the experts. Once the landlords want their land back, the squatters have to move on. Those who live on the land owned by the indigenous villagers seldom got compensation when they’re asked to move, while those who live on the government-owned land can get compensation (generally under $10,000) according to related regulations.
“Even though we’re not indigenous villagers, our roots are here,” says Eric Tam Chi-kit, whose family has been living in Ping Che for 50 years. “We were among the first to plough the wild land of the New Territories – but now we’re being disposed of with no respect.”
Hau explains the major reason of choosing the three sites is that they are respectively close to a designated MTR line (Kwu Tung North), Sheung Shui’s prosperous markets (Fanling North) and a designated border control point (Ping Che/Ta Kwu Ling), but he also admits that the government possibly excluded most of the indigenous villages from the development areas because of expected high compensation and difficulties in land resumption.
“Indigenous villagers have been enjoying privileges out of historical reasons,” says Hau, an indigenous villager himself living in a village geographically connected to but outside the Kwu Tung North development area. “The continuation of such privileges can be argued but for now it’s set on the Basic Law. With land supply in urgent need and not enough land available in urban areas, the government has to take land from someone. The question is who to take land from so the impact can be minimalised.”
Lee Siu-wah, whose home is no more than 15 minutes’ walk away from Hau’s but is within the development area, asks: “What about our future? What will it be like? Until the government answers this question, we will never move.”
Two new town controversies
Hongkongers vs Mainlanders
Chan Kin-ching, member of a concern group against ‘forced integration’ with the Mainland, says only 30 hectares of the residential land provided by the plan is for public housing while the rest is for private housing. With the government being vague on its ‘HK property for HK residents’ policy, Chan fears that the new towns won’t be developed for Hongkongers but for Mainland property investors. And that could shake up the local property market.
Chan is also worried about a plan laid out by think tank One Country Two Systems Research Institute which includes the development areas in a ‘visa-free zone’ along the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. Mainlanders can travel freely in this zone. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has said the three new towns will not be included in the visa-free zone – but Chan is nevertheless suspicious.
But Prof Eddie Hui Chi-man, member of the Town Planning Board, says the policy of ‘local property for local residents’ is still under discussion and, with the volatile property market, the government needs to be cautious in its implementation. He adds that the percentage of public housing is ‘acceptable’ because it is allowed to have more units than that of private housing. In terms of actual homes, public housing takes about 40 percent of all the units expected to be provided.
A ‘conventional new town approach’ vs public-private partnerships
In the plan, a ‘conventional new town approach’ is being proposed by the government. This is where $40 billion is spent on claiming back all the land currently owned by private hands and indigenous people. The government would then use that land to designate to different development purposes, be it recreational, industrial or residential. The thinking behind this approach is to clear any suspicion of collusion between the government and private developers.
However, private developers have been protesting against the plan because they have been buying up New Territories land from indigenous villagers at low prices for years and they want to sell their land once they see the price is right in the property market. Since 2008, when the plan was formulated, private landowners have been under the impression they will be able to work in collusion with the government, hence they have been snapping up more land. But it wasn’t until this final stage of consultation on the plans that the government has ruled out any collusion. So that’s why the private developers are angry.
As for the villagers, many are pleased the government is not in cahoots with private firms because they can claim compensation now. If the businesses were in control, compensation wouldn’t be so readily available.