Evolution of an activist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2007, 12:00am

The supreme irony of Paul Zimmerman's life is his passion to protect the harbour and against building too many roads - and his job selling luxury vehicles.

His first foray into public life was in February 2004 as convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District, a forum to bring together businesspeople and professionals to discuss the fate of Victoria Harbour in the face of reclamation and proposals for a waterfront that would be unfriendly to pedestrians.

'We decided we had to act and do something,' he said. The anti-reclamation wave quickly made its way to the top of the agenda for many such groups.

In less than three years, the 48-year-old senior executive running travel, automotive and airline marketing companies has become one of the best-known harbour activists and town planning critics. He has been vocal about the West Kowloon Cultural District, Tamar, Kai Tak and heritage issues - and, recently, the campaign to preserve Central's Star Ferry pier and Queen's Pier.

He has been a member of the Harbour Business Forum, a coalition of the city's leading companies on harbour planning issues and he represented the business community on the government's Harbourfront Enhancement Committee (HEC) until he resigned last summer in protest against the government's 'insincerity'. A founding member of the Civic Party, he stood for an Election Committee post last month, but was narrowly defeated - by one vote - in the tourism sector.

And yet, he says he never planned to get into politics. 'The Harbourfront Enhancement Committee made me politically active and more an activist. There was a lot of push-back from the government. The harder I pushed, they pushed back, which made me increasingly aggressive. After realising the HEC was not the platform, I started going to the Legislative Council to express my views. Then the Election Committee came up and I decided to try.

'If you're not more involved, you're not going to win the battle. I'm not a quiet person and I'm not a loser. I'm a winner. The interesting thing is when I talk to people, whether they're from the business community, or environmental groups or other community groups, I find we have similar views on what went wrong with our harbourfront and planning.'

His involvement in such issues led the Civic Party to invite him to be a member. 'I like the concept of the Civic Party. It focuses on the process and community engagement. The party is very similar to a political party I had joined when I was in Rotterdam. It was called the Democratic 66 as it was formed in 1966. It wasn't a left or right party. It wanted to improve the process.

'We have to find ways to have democracies in small areas so we can get more people involved, and therefore better ideas and more consensus. Even if it is not for big universal suffrage issues, such as the chief executive election, we have to do it on a small scale, including an independent Town Planning Board, Antiquities Advisory Board, and Advisory Council on the Environment.'

Of Dutch origin, Mr Zimmerman arrived in Hong Kong in 1984 to help with his father's textile business on the mainland and he found the country fascinating, so he landed a job with a Dutch bank in Hong Kong. He worked there for three months and then moved into the advertising business.

While his 2004 involvement in the protect the harbour campaign was the watershed of his evolution into an activist, the event that led to politics came in 1998 - when he sold his events co-ordination company to go on a holiday.

'It was my first holiday since I arrived in 1984. I went to Holland, Australia and spent half a year in Shanghai. Then I realised Hong Kong was the best place in the world and I love Hong Kong. As Hong Kong is now my home, it is my duty to make it a better place.

'In the past 22 years, I probably have seen Hong Kong more than many people in this city. I know it by paragliding in Shek O, Lantau, Sai Kung. I know it by sailing. I've walked many country parks and biked many lanes.'

He is worried the harbour will eventually disappear and the same fate awaits cultural heritage.

'People may see them as different things, but it's all about land sales, the value of selling harbourfront land and selling land for property development. I've been criticised for being anti-development. But I'm not. I'm pro-development. It is a matter of how you define development,' he said. 'Hong Kong's model was right for the 1950s and '60s. But the city has changed and the development model must change. If we're not changing the property-led development mentality, instead of becoming the greenest city in [mainland] China and Asia's world city, Hong Kong will be killed.'

Apart from the 'anti-development' criticism, he faces a more serious allegation that some companies paid for his campaigns so they could benefit.

Mr Zimmerman denied the claim, stressing he was never paid. 'The funding comes from private individuals or myself. I spend lots of money on campaign activities. The thing is if you want to improve the planning or the waterfront, it will always benefit some companies. We got support from many companies in many places, such as the Harbour Business Forum. But I didn't take any money; I have never been paid.'

He spends his mornings, evenings and weekends on campaigns, saying it adds up to roughly three days a week. 'I know if we continue to work together, we will see changes.'