Harbouring a passion
He took on the government and won, saving one of Hong Kong's 'priceless' assets, writes Neil Western
Retired lawyer Winston Chu Ka-sun puts his arm around his 86-year-old mother Cissy, gazes at Victoria Harbour through the window of his 20th floor office in Admiralty and declares himself 'numbed'. After nine years, Mr Chu on Tuesday won perhaps the biggest court victory of his life: a High Court judgment against plans for a 10-hectare reclamation project in Victoria Harbour on the Wan Chai waterfront.
What's more, the judgment has thrown $30 billion of planned reclamation projects into doubt and earned city planners a judicial slap on the wrist for their bullish approach to harbour development. Yet Mr Chu looks more weary than triumphant. 'I'm numbed in the sense of feeling: my God, what was this all about? Why did this have to be done?' he says. 'It is the most beautiful harbour in the world. It's a work of art, of man and nature. What's the reason to destroy it?'
The battle has cost 63-year-old Mr Chu not only time but also sleep and money. The former Town Planning Board member who heads the Society for Protection of the Harbour says the bill could hit $10 million if the case ends up, as he expects, in the Court of Final Appeal. He has twice had to cancel orders for a new Mercedes to help fund the battle, he says, declaring: 'It's like throwing two cars into the harbour.'
For eight years, Mr Chu has devoted half his waking hours to his mission. And since the case went to Judicial Review six months ago, he has been living it 24 hours a day. 'The burden of saving the harbour is very unusual,' he says. Why did he take it on? 'Because I'm an idiot,' he says, smiling, before offering a more impassioned reason. He produces an ode to the harbour he wrote in 1964 (see below), since published in a volume of his own poetry. He doesn't want it to become a eulogy. 'This is why I do it,' he says. 'How much is the harbour worth? It's priceless. If someone wanted to destroy a beautiful painting, wouldn't you stop them?
'I could have used these past eight years to make more money. What do you do in life? Seek a lot of money, women, fame and power? It's hard to find a worthy cause. This is one. I don't know if it's been worth it,' he confesses. 'It's a step in the right direction.'
The constant smile on the face of his mother, Cissy Chu Fok Wing-yue, suggests she at least is relishing the victory. A great grandmother (she has 12 children, 26 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren), she says only that she is pleased the harbour encroachment has finally been checked. It was a phone call from Mrs Chu to her son in 1994 that started the ball rolling. Looking out of from her top-floor Robinson Road flat where she has lived since the 1950s, she noticed the view had changed; a huge chunk of land protruded from Tsim Sha Tsui towards Sheung Wan.
Her son, who then had a seat on the Town Planning Board, discovered a reclamation scheme he was unaware of. His mother urged him to fight harbour developments and he took up the cudgels, resigning from the board and setting up the society in December 1995, with legislators Christine Loh Kung-wai and Jennifer Chow Kit-ping. They remain the only three members.
'I was tempted to walk away,' says Mr Chu. 'My mother wouldn't. She just said: 'Son, go and object.' I knew it was not that simple. But I'm glad I didn't walk away. It's no use later saying, 'I wish I had done something.''
Mr Chu cast around for 'someone big' to take on the job. 'But they said they could not afford to stand up to the government.' The job needed a lawyer, a planner, an organiser and a benefactor - four roles Mr Chu could fulfil. 'So I took it on, with great reluctance,' he says. 'I had a quarrel with my mother. She wanted to pay for it all and so did I; in the end we split it.'
Arguments directed to the government were ignored so he formulated a battle plan. First was to raise awareness through the press, then to educate about the consequences of reclamation, and then to win the support of the public and later that of legislators. The plan worked. In 1996, he obtained more than 150,000 signatures for a petition he presented to then governor Chris Patten. A survey of 1,000 people conducted by the University of Hong Kong in April 1997 found 93 per cent backed legislation protecting the harbour.
The result of all this pressure is hanging on the walls of Mr Chu's office: a framed certificate signed by former attorney-general Jeremy Mathews passing the Protection of the Harbour Bill into law just three days before Britain returned the colony to China.
'I wrote the law, I got the law passed by Legco with the help of Christine Loh and now I have had the displeasure of enforcing it. I think that is unique in Hong Kong,' says Mr Chu.
In 1997, he vowed to treat the government like a small child: 'You first teach him and then advise him. If he doesn't listen, you coerce him or even smack him.' The harbour protection law was the stick with which he was finally able to beat the government.
'The government may try to paint us as radicals, unreasonably blocking the path of development, but this is not the case. We are looking after the rights of Hong Kong people,' insists Mr Chu. The society's proposal is for a harbour authority to be set up modelled on a body in Sydney. It would have three aims: to ensure the land around the harbour can be enjoyed by the public; to prevent high-rise development along the harbour; and to ensure the enjoyment of the harbour by improving water quality and creating gardens rather than container ports.
Although delighted by his win after the seven-day hearing, Mr Chu acknowledges the 'great possibility' of an appeal. 'If the government loses, it comes out of the public's pockets,' he says. Even then, he says, the government may change the law to reverse the presumption against reclamation under the harbour protection law. For now, however, development is on hold.
Despite his victory, Mr Chu says he is a reluctant hero. 'I hate publicity,' he says. 'Unless you are standing for an election, publicity is a disadvantage. Where's the benefit in being high-profile? I would rather be a beach bum.'
Mr Chu retired from his own firm six-and-a-half years ago but says he has been working harder than ever since. Apart from battling harbour reclamation projects, he has been proactive in redesigning projects to make them more pedestrian friendly, proposing projects such as a South Island MTR line and backing plans for a cruise port at the former Kai Tak airport site.
Of greatest concern to Mr Chu is the looming spectre of a paper submitted to the Town Planning Board in 1994, which outlines the extent of past reclamations and proposes to reclaim a further 1,297 hectares, according to the society's estimates. This plan has never been withdrawn and is therefore still on the cards. 'If government were to proceed with the reclamations, the harbour will become like a river, between 800 and 1,000 metres wide,' he says.
Mr Chu hopes the spirit of rebellion exemplified in the July 1 march will encourage more to believe they can make a difference. 'There's a fundamental flaw in Mr Tung's government. They underestimate the people. They hammer things through and think they can get away with it, like Article 23, but they never can.'
Will the day come when people march to save the fragrant harbour from its concrete conquerors? 'I don't need to organise a march,' says Mr Chu. 'I know how to fight. Whatever the government may try, I am ready.'
Additional reporting by Heike Phillips