Department backs off after angry villagers block moves to demolish their homes
More than 700 squatters from a Diamond Hill village blocked government moves to demolish their homes yesterday, winning an 11th-hour reprieve until the Lunar New Year.
Housing Department officers sent to level 15 units in the village yesterday morning backed off after noisy protests.
After hours of talks with village representatives and legislators, officials decided to postpone demolition plans for 516 households and 46 businesses. Villagers can now choose to leave in two weeks or on February 7, at the end of the Lunar New Year, chief housing manager Lee Kang-sum said.
They must inform the department of their decision before Friday and sign an agreement, Mr Lee said.
Housing officers re-entered the village in the afternoon to seal empty homes and completed the work without resistance. The department also promised to advance applications for public housing by one year. 'Those who are qualified to be housed in the New Territories will now be allocated to the extended urban areas; and those who go to the extended urban areas can now have houses inside urban areas,' Mr Lee said.
He said the department would also provide free shuttle buses for villagers assigned to Tuen Mun and help their children find suitable schools. The 46 businesses could claim a removal allowance up to $10,000.
Chan Yuen-han, legislator for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, blamed the Government for creating unnecessary tension, and said its housing policy was rigid. 'Why can't the villagers be rehoused in the same district? There are enough houses here. It is because of the rigid government interim housing policy that has created trouble whenever we need to rehouse people,' she said.
Most shops in the village closed yesterday in a show of support for the squatters' action, as well as protesting against the lack of compensation. The atmosphere deteriorated briefly at 9am when housing officials arrived and marched towards one of the makeshift barricades put up by squatters. Several squatters formed a human chain to block their progress.
The possibility of a stand-off receded after officials agreed to requests by Ms Chan for emergency talks, which led to a temporary halt to the clearing operations. Despite yesterday's compromise, many squatters still felt they faced an uncertain future, with some threatening to kill themselves if their demands were not met.
'I don't know what to do if the authorities do not give me sufficient compensation for my store. I may have no choice but to jump into the sea and drown myself because I have taken out many high-interest loans,' said Cheng Yi-lai, who has operated a clothing shop in the village for five years.
Yip Him-tak, 56, rejected the offer of interim housing in Tuen Mun. 'I am currently working 12 hours a day in Tsz Wan Shan. If I move to Tuen Mun, I may have to spend at least four hours a day just to get to work. How much rest will I get then? It will ruin my family life.'
Chan Kim-lung, 36, said he had lived in the village for more than 10 years and did not want to leave: 'I will never sign the paper. They can postpone to whenever they like, I just won't move. Let's wait and see what happens.'
However, shopkeeper and cafe owner Chim Hong-keung said: 'I have had enough of this village, even though I have spent most of my adult life here. It will be nice to start afresh in a new environment.'