Villagers in battle to reclaim temple

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Sha Tin Rural Committee is set to launch a judicial challenge to reclaim ownership of the famous Che Kung Temple from the government.

On behalf of indigenous Sha Tin villagers, Lau Tin-yeung, 62, on Monday will file an application for a judicial review into the ownership of the land on which the 300-year-old temple stands.

Villagers say they are not after the millions in donations given by worshippers and do not want to claim the value of the land. They just want to 'vindicate their right to enjoy absolute ownership and control of their ancestral hall'.

The villagers will challenge the government's interpretation of a Supreme Court order in 1932 that is said to have transferred ownership of the Tai Wai temple site to an incorporated body set up by the government.

Before the transfer, villagers said, the land was registered under the name of all villagers - more than 20,000 of them.

But they say the court order involved only the transfer of ownership from two temple managers to the government. Because of this, they claim most of the land still belongs to the villagers and their descendents.

Indigenous villagers and the government are already at loggerheads over illegal structures on village houses. Lau, a dole claimant, has been selected as a representative to maximise the villagers' chances of securing legal aid funding.

Che Kung Temple is famous for its fan-bladed wheel of fortune, which attracts a pilgrimage of worshippers on the second day of the Lunar New Year. Political heavyweights draw a fortune stick at the temple to predict the city's prospects for the year.

'The government only has the power to manage the temple,' said Mok Kam-kwai, Sha Tin Rural Committee chairman, who is helping Lau with the legal action.

'We are fighting for the ownership of the temple because we don't want others to challenge our right to use and enter the temple.'

Mok said villagers started talks with the government about two years ago, but officials rejected their request to rectify the ownership status of the temple. He said that before the court order, the government took legal action to take over ownership of the land 80 years ago because of a deadly fight over control of the site among villagers. Some died but it is not certain how many.

According to the copy of the order provided by Mok, the Supreme Court, then the top court, ordered that the 'immovable property' situated on the lot be vested in the Secretary for Chinese Affairs Incorporated (now the Secretary for Home Affairs Incorporated) from the estate of temple managers Wai Fu-wo and Tsang Kwong-yan.

He said if the villagers successfully reclaimed ownership of the temple and the land they would set up a charitable trust benefiting all Sha Tin residents, indigenous or not.

'We will not sell the land or turn the temple into a columbarium - at least, I won't allow it to happen during my lifetime,' Mok said, referring to the controversial but lucrative business that has flourished because of a chronic shortage of niches to store the ashes of the dead.

'We will just keep the temple as it is now. We are not greedy.'

A spokesman for the government declined to comment because of the possibility of a legal action.

The temple is dedicated to Che Kung (General Che), a soldier who quashed a rebellion in South China during the Song dynasty.

He is said to have accompanied the emperor when he fled to Hong Kong before the fall of the dynasty.

After Che Kung's death, people worshipped him for his courage.

The site has an old temple, built more than 300 years ago, and limited access is allowed. A building completed in 1993 is open to the public.