Powerful sons of the soil
The Heung Yee Kuk, whose members have collectively made many billions of dollars from New Territories land deals, are asking the government for a valuable block of land in Sha Tin. Of course, they want it for nothing. Always eager to placate the highly organised sons of the soil, the government has scurried to comply with the request: the kuk will get a 4,336-square-metre site to build a spacious new $65 million headquarters complex.
The proposal is now before the Executive Council for final approval. It is a safe bet it will get the nod; it's a very brave politician or civil servant who stands up to the mighty clansmen. The kuk will next year celebrate the 80th anniversary of its foundation as the voice of indigenous villagers who occupied New Territories villages when the British lease was signed in 1898. This will be a milestone for one of Hong Kong's most influential bodies.
Canny leadership by the current head, Lau Wong-fat, has helped cement what should be an archaic body into an efficient socio-political force that works tirelessly for the sole interests of its members. Mr Lau has headed the kuk for a quarter of a century.
The kuk argues it needs the vacant land in the Shek Mun area near City One, Sha Tin. It hopes to break ground next year for construction of a gracious building that will echo the traditional clan style. It will pay for the building itself, but it wants the government to grant the land and waive land premium charges. So confident is the kuk of winning approval that it has put an artist's impression of the building and floor plans on its website.
The land saga goes back to 1972, when the kuk asked for a substantial site for a new headquarters. According to kuk old-timers, this was approved - but, for reasons now forgotten, it was then shelved. In the meantime, the organisation in 1975 bought an old mansion at 47 Cumberland Road, Kowloon Tong, as its office - asking the government to keep the Sha Tin land offer open.
Last year, at the kuk's annual general meeting, Mr Lau once again raised the matter. Deputy chairman Daniel Lam Wai-keung was named to head a committee to handle construction.
But why is the government even considering a grant of land to a powerful organisation that is funded lavishly? The official answer is: 'As Heung Yee Kuk's present premises in Kowloon Tong is insufficient for its use, Heung Yee Kuk has applied for a grant of land for the construction of a new building.'
Interesting. There are probably hundreds of social and charitable organisations in Hong Kong which consider their premises too small; is the government going to give all of them similar sympathetic consideration? I doubt it.
The land grant will cap a good year for former poor village boy Mr Lau, who hails from the remote hamlet of Lung Kwu Tan, lapped by Pearl Estuary waters near Castle Peak. The billionaire tycoon was awarded the Grand Bauhinia Medal in the July honours list. The award cited his 'long and illustrious record of public service'.
It did not specifically mention that he was the pioneer in the use of rural land for container storage. He took a legal battle for this 'right' to the Privy Council in the 1980s, and won. All 27 rural committees in the New Territories are helping the 'king of the kuk' celebrate his honour.
A huge feast is planned in the Yuen Long Stadium for November, when 10,000 people are expected to sit down for a traditional, one-pot poon choi meal. They will be toasting the remarkable career of the farm boy who started his working life painting railway sleepers. No doubt they will also be celebrating the new headquarters of their remarkable organisation, and the generosity of the Hong Kong taxpayer.
Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories