Monastery under fire over work on hillside

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 October, 2009, 12:00am

A Buddhist monastery atop a Lantau Island hill has felled trees, removed vegetation and blocked a stream to develop a columbarium, a commercial human ash repository. It has also occupied public land and illegally erected structures.

Residents of the area, Keung Shan, are unhappy that development work by Yin Hing Monastery has destroyed trees, scarred a hillside and disturbed the peaceful environment that is home to dozens of monks' retreats. They have urged the monastery to halt what they say has been a rapid expansion.

But a manager of the company that owns the land upon which part of the monastery sits - both on private and government land, according to a Lands Department spokesman - said the development of its private land was the company's business and it would continue.

The manager, Lau Chui-lan, refused to answer any further inquiries.

The monastery reopened on January 17 after closing for about two years, with five columbariums newly built and more construction work apparent on an adjacent hillside.

The Buddhist monastery was built in 1966 and was taken over by a commercial venture called Luk Wu Management Company in recent years, according to its website.

A South China Morning Post inspection last week found a bulldozer on a treeless slope outside the side entrance of the monastery, in contrast with slopes nearby covered in vegetation. A stream was blocked with stone barriers despite the presence of a stone slab erected by the Tai O rural committee warning people not to tamper with the stream.

But an Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department spokeswoman later said no trees managed by the government had been felled. An Environmental Department spokesman also said no violations had been observed at the site.

But a Keung Shan resident, who said the slopes had been covered with grass and trees, said tree-felling was more of a safety and environmental issue than a legal one.

'I'm worried that mindless tree-felling might lead to a landslide,' she said. 'We had a terrible experience of a disastrous landslide a few years ago after a black thunderstorm. I don't want to see a repeat of that.

'I hope the government will step in and do something even though the trees are on private land.'

A resident living further down the hill from the monastery complained that the stream, the main water source for many people, had become filthy since it was blocked.

She said the stream was important to people who had no access to government water. 'I used to brew tea with stream water,' she said. 'Now I dare not.'

Eddie Tse Sai-kit, committee member of the Association for Tai O Environment and Development, said he was concerned that blocking the stream would harm vegetation farther down the hill.

Corrin Chan, an architect who has visited Keung Shan regularly in the past 12 years, said she suspected the monastery had failed to seek government approval before it built a concrete platform and what appeared to be a bridge nearby. 'This kind of illegal construction destroys the peaceful environment of Luk Wu,' Chan said. 'I'm also worried about whether they are structurally sound.'

A Buildings Department spokeswoman later confirmed that the department had not received any submissions relating to the site's formation or building proposals for decoration works and noted that construction work was under way near the monastery.

She said the department was investigating whether footpaths and blockage of the stream contravened the Buildings Ordinance.