Area of shame needs the golf course treatment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 1999, 12:00am

OF all the rural ghastliness created by naked greed, Nam Sang Wai stands in a special class of shame. Once a placid area of fishponds and swampish paddy fields, it has been foully desecrated.

The Yuen Long industrial estate which flanks one side is comparatively attractive compared with the clutter of illegal factories along dusty potholed lanes and the festering rubbish that floats in abandoned fishponds and waterways. It is a noisome, poisoned area.

Once again, Nam Sang Wai is set to become a battlefield for developers and environmentalists. I understand Henderson Real Estate is about to start work on its long-delayed plans for a combined residential and golf course development.

This is sure to be opposed by conservationists, if only because the Mai Po Marshes adjoin the site. Bird lovers and others committed to environmental causes argue the development will be disastrous for the flying visitors to the marshlands.

I am not so sure. To me, any alternative to the present disgraceful situation seems infinitely preferable; a nuclear weapons testing site could not be much worse than the present disgusting landscape.

Normally, I find myself by inclination, logic and common sense on the side of the environmentalists. Not this time. There is little common sense in arguing that a golf course is more harmful to birds than a filthy industrial pit.

The fighting over Nam Sang Wai has been going on for seven years, since Henderson and its partners put together a jumbled collection of traditional farm lands and village properties under one unified land title. This gave them a strategic 98.3-hectare block on which they planned to develop an 18-hole golf course and 2,550 luxury homes in blocks up to eight storeys high. The plan sparked an uproar. Town planning approval was given. Then refused. Then adapted. There were legal tussles with lawyers swooping on the case like fish hawks on a dead mackerel. It went to the Privy Council - Britain's highest court - in 1996 and Henderson got permission to go ahead.

Since then . . . nothing. The company is still working on an environmental impact report which is slightly more complex than the Bosnian peace accord.

It brings sadness to the heart to visit this corner of the New Territories. A dreadful pall of smoke and dust seems to endlessly hover; who is going to pay for those luxury homes to breathe this vileness? I am unmoved by one environmental argument. This holds that a golf course is harmful because the grass has to be fertilised and that pesticides must be used. Inevitably, some of this will be washed out of the soil and go into the Yuen Long nullah and other waters and will eventually seep into Deep Bay.

Well, so what? Deep Bay has been poisoned for two decades. And what harm will golf course run-off possibly do compared to the industrial, chemical and human pollutants streaming into that fatal shallow inlet from both shores of the Shenzhen River? That complaint simply does not hold water, dirty or otherwise.

Included in overall development proposals are a 40-hectare managed nature reserve on the glorified magroved mudbank of Lut Chau, providing a buffer between golfers and Mai Po. This will be funded by future Nam Sang Wai residents, which in effect means Henderson Land.

Golf course designers have also incorporated wildlife habitats, including waterways with shores planted with reeds and other vegetation which will attract wildlife. The golf course will be as organic as possible and no pesticides will be used unless the Environmental Protection Department gives approval.

Reading the bulky documents outlining safeguards, it is hard to imagine that much has been left to chance.

The Hong Kong Golf Association will not specifically talk about Nam Sang Wai; it does not want to get involved in a private development issue.

But it is keen to see more golf courses in Hong Kong, pointing out that the vastly popular public course at Kau Sai Chau used to be a naval firing range. From a tortured piece of real estate, it now provides joy for thousands.

'Demand for golf courses seems insatiable,' association secretary Bill Marshall says. The association urges Government to develop completed landfill and other suitable areas as golf courses.

'Hong Kong's relative prosperity now requires an improvement in the quality of life for as many as possible,' he adds. 'A good way of doing this is developing more golf courses.' Local residents are in favour of the development, for a number of reasons. First, like me, they think anything is better than the present mess. Secondly, it will clean up the area. Third, a golf course means jobs.

Yuen Long District Board member Chow Wing-kan says the golf course will help create a buffer zone between housing and the avian bird sanctuary.

'It will help the wetlands,' he says.

Across the river, authorities in Shenzhen have developed the successful wetland conservation zone at Futian. He would like to see the same idea around Nam Sang Wai, along with a theme park which could attract tourists.

Another member, Yau Dai-tai, asks a simple question: if you were a bird, would you rather live next to a golf course or a busy illegal container yard? 'It will provide recreation,' she adds. 'It's good for Yuen Long.' Poon Kam-hung, the village representative at Yau Tam Mei, says: 'Good! We need more recreational areas. And a golf course will make the area green.'