The final frontier: What does the future hold for the northeast New Territories?

 

It was once known as 'The Land Beyond'. But the New Territories is no longer the city's distant wilderness. Now it's prime real estate. Hong Kong's northeastern reaches are changing fast – but with change comes high emotions. Malls and estates are planned, farms are being closed and protests are kicking off. Anna Cummins meets those who are pushing back hard against the tide of development

There's a battle underway in Hong Kong's northeast. The SAR's former hinterland has long been a fermenting concoction of politics and power, property and possession. And, as the border between China and Hong Kong grows ever more porous, it's caught in flux. Hand-built houses and quaint family-run stores sit between highways and the uniform high-rise estates of nearby Fanling and Sheung Shui. This is, of course, no utopia. Amid the trees and streams there are scrapyards and stacked storage containers. Silent bulldozers sit menacingly in the shadows of buildings under dispute, a testament to the convoluted and antiquated land policy that continues to plague the area. Regardless of all this, though, many simply see the northeastern New Territories as home. And many also see it as Hong Kong's final frontier – the last major bastion of village life in our city.

Life as we know it in the northeastern New Territories is under threat. And the villagers there don't want it to change. They don't want development and many are fighting it. "We're trying our best to stay here," says farmer Zoey Wong, co-founder of Mapopo Community Farm in Ma Shi Po, northern Fanling. "We thought about locking ourselves to the fences to try to stop them from forcing us to leave." Mapopo is a collective of farmers who cultivate land and run educational tours and workshops about agriculture. Just last week, it became the latest battlefront in the saga. "We knew something was going to happen," admits Wong. "The developers sent us a final notice in March saying they were going to repossess the land. Ever since then we've been taking it in turns to do guard shifts, sleeping in tents." Just after sunrise on Monday April 25, it's claimed that dozens of security guards employed by Henderson Land Development Company, clad in hi-vis vests and facemasks, surrounded the farm and began to cordon it off. Wong and maybe a dozen others, they say, broke through to occupy the farm. It appears a violent scuffle ensued and four people were arrested.

"It was so sudden," recalls Wong. "We were not prepared at all. We tried to climb up to block them but they forced us down. It was crazy. I was arrested for criminal damage and three of us have been charged with obstructing the police." Wong claims she was the last one of the group to be removed and suspects that's the reason for being arrested. She was then pictured in newspapers in tears. "I was heartbroken when they moved me," she says. "It's hard to explain but I felt I was rooted on the land, like a tree. It felt like they were tearing me out."

A familiar tale
It's a story that echoes the disputes that persist throughout the New Territories. Mapopo has been in the family of co-founder Becky Au for three generations but the family has always rented the land from indigenous owners. Since the mid-90s, however, Henderson Land Development Company has been buying up Ma Shi Po in stages. It's thought it now owns around 80 percent of the village, including the plots that the community farm is on. For the past year, it's claimed that Henderson has been trying to get farmers to vacate in order to pave the way for housing developments.

Although our requests for comments go unanswered, Henderson did talk to us about Ma Shi Po in a story we published in 2014. "[Henderson] has been having open dialogues with our tenants to understand their backgrounds and needs, and we have offered allowances to help them move to their new homes," said a spokesman. "The company will adhere to the established procedure and ensure that allowances offered to eligible occupiers are no worse than the government's policy upon land resumption." Wong now claims that $60,000 has been offered to Au's family as compensation for its displacement. But she also says that the family has refused this offer. At the time of going to press, it seems Henderson is sending in more security guards for a second attempt at clearing the farm. Unconfirmed reports claim that there are at least 100 guards and that protesters at the scene, it is alleged, may be involved in some pretty serious skirmishes.

New towns, old land
It's a no-brainer why developers seek to build in this area, close to the booming Chinese border. In fact, many of these plots were snapped up by prospectors when Shenzhen was no more than a market town. "Even as late as the 80s, some of the villages in this area were quite remote," recalls Dr Peter Cookson Smith, an architect and city planner who directed the government's master plans for several new towns, including Tai Po and Fanling in the 70s and 80s. "The district officers could only get to them by horse!"

Just as in Ma Shi Po, individual plots of land across the district have been slowly pieced together by developers to amass areas large enough for substantial projects. Developers often buy under various company names, it's claimed, in order to make their purchases without alerting competitors. It can make it difficult to establish who owns what.

However, there's one big reason this zone is so hot right now. The government wants to build three new towns by 2031. These New Development Areas were first discussed in 1998, shelved in 2003 and resurrected in Donald Tsang's 2007-2008 Policy Address, which argued that development was needed to address 'long-term housing demand' and to produce jobs. One of the three proposed towns, spread across Ping Che and Ta Kwu Ling, has been postponed. However, the schemes in Fanling North and Kwu Tung North, close to Sheung Shui, passed the early stages of approval last year. The deadline for public objection to initial works expired on February 29. Final approval is still needed by the Executive Council but work is planned to start as early as 2018. Together, the two towns are set to provide homes for 177,000 people and to create 38,000 jobs by 2031.

Starting a movement
Dirty disputes are increasingly common on both sides of the debate. We meet Mr Wong, who lived, until recently, in a hut on Po Lau Road in Kwu Tung, one of the areas set to become a new town. His father originally occupied the plot and built a squatter house on it in the 60s.Wong has lived there ever since. On March 14, though, while out, Wong claims he received a call from his neighbour who told him to rush home. By the time he returned, he tells us, all that was left of his home – and the two adjacent to it – were twisted piles of metal. Three bulldozers were found abandoned in nearby woods, he claims. It was reported that a 58-year-old man was arrested a week later in connection with the incident.

"I'm just here to rebuild my house. I have nothing else to say," says Wong as he stands next to the home he is defiantly rebuilding with the help of volunteers. He estimates he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and claims he was refused permission to rebuild the house by the Lands Department's Squatter Control Office, who, he reckons, told him he would need to identify the landowner and get their permission. This attracted criticism from concerned groups who said that this could encourage others to repeat similar acts of destruction.

Land searches have indicated the company who owned the plot was Wise Treasure Development Corp, which has no shareholders. It's since been reported that Wong and other villagers are undergoing a lawsuit seeking the right to be given 'adverse possession' of the land – due to the length of time they have lived there – against a company under Henderson Land. The group, however, has denied any involvement in the damage.

Tree's a crowd
On the far flung shores of Starling Inlet, near Shau Tau Kok, the trees have fallen victim to the winds of change. A draft Outline Zoning Plan, published in February by the Town Planning Board, allocated around 81 hectares of land in three villages near to Plover Cove Country Park as 'green belt' or 'conservation area'. Villagers expressed anger at the news, claiming more land should be set aside for village development in concern that the indigenous males' birthright to build a small house on the land would be lost.

Shortly afterwards, several valuable trees were hacked down, it appears, by chainsaws. "No arrests have been made," points out Paul Zimmerman, CEO of Designing Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation which 'promotes interventions wherever it sees bad planning'. Zimmerman explains that tree felling is a common tactic used to convince authorities that land is less ecologically valuable, therefore more worthy of development. "Vague zoning causes disruption," he says. "We have a photograph of the person cutting the tree but [the police] want a witness statement – and the witness is afraid that harm will be done to them. However, the media have reported that the village head confirmed they did it." Zimmerman suggests the government should make landowners responsible for trees felled on their property without approval. "Once they have to pay, the problem will subside," he adds.

Out of control?
The debate isn't dying down without a fight. A group of residents and activists first stormed a LegCo meeting in June 2014, interrupting a $340million funding request for works needed in the NDA plans. Only three weeks later, by the start of July, Occupy Central had begun. Mapopo's Zoey Wong was present at the protest and was arrested during the fracas. "Our movement definitely had some impact on their decision [to start Occupy Central on July 1]," muses Wong. "Because of the movement, the political atmosphere was getting higher and I do think that made it easier for Occupy to happen, to a certain degree."

Of course, not everyone is convinced the protests are necessary. Roger Nissim is a chartered surveyor and an adjunct professor in the department of real estate and construction at HKU. He was district land officer for Sha Tin between 1980 and 1984. "The plan is for 60,000 units to house more than 170,000 people," he says. "If a few hundred have to move – and are adequately compensated, which they will be – then I'm sorry but there is no discussion. You're never going to please everybody. Hong Kong is clamouring for democracy, so let's have some democracy here. Who is more important – those thousands and thousands of people on the waiting list for public housing or the hundreds of people who need to be moved to accommodate them?" Nissim adds that the two NDA plans are slated to provide a public to private housing split of 60:40, which would greatly ease the burden for thousands on the waiting list.

"My experience [with Sha Tin] is historical but the fundamentals are the same," says Nissim. "In fact, the government compensation packages are more generous now. Where else in the world is so-called 'agricultural land' compensated at $1,000 per square foot? That is 90 percent ex-gratia because it's only worth $100 per square foot! The rest is an inducement to vacate. Those who are making noise probably are being greedy and working on the premise that it's a weak government and if they make more noise they might get more money."

Nissim argues that the proposed location of the three new towns makes sense in relation to the infrastructure already in place in the area. "Since the 70s," he says, "the government has built nine new towns and they now house almost half the population of Hong Kong. There's an old saying – if it ain't broke, don't fix it! And it isn't broken. What has changed is the volume of the people speaking out against it. When we resumed land in Sha Tin, people were honestly lining up to take the compensation. Nowadays, when you do a clearance, you have to be smart, because Hong Kong people are smart and they will jump in if they can see a way to get money out of it."

Losing the will?
Labour Party lawmaker and PolyU academic Dr Fernando Cheung, who represents the constituency of New Territories East, laments the destruction at Mapopo. "The whole thing is a tragedy," he says. "The farmers were engaging in activities that are helpful to the environment and healthy to the communities around them. We would like to see this more around the territory instead of bulldozing over it and erasing everything."

"If you want to develop the entire territory," continues Cheung, "you should respect what is already there, including farmland and villagers who have been living there for decades. Residents probably would like to see their living environment improved. It's not the idea of building more housing we object to. It's the way they do it. Look at Fanling Golf Course. It's huge! We don't want to destroy the entire facility. Maybe we don't want to touch it at all. But absolutely no discussion has taken place on that."

This saga will rage on. Expect more scuffles. Expect high emotions. Expect more furious debate over the disappearance of, perhaps, our last major frontier of village life in Hong Kong. After all, the NDAs still have to come back to LegCo for more funding, so it's clear there're more arguments to come. "People do not object to planning," says Cheung. "They often welcome it. But it's the way it's being done. It's obvious, in the end, it's the developers who are laughing all the way to the bank."

For more information on the NDAs, visit ktnfln-ndas.gov.hk.

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