Road back from ruin?
Forty-year-old Kenneth Li can still vaguely recall his childhood in Wong Chuk Yeung, a village on the Sai Kung peninsula. Memories of tranquil, golden paddy fields and the laughter of neighbours still stick in his mind.
'This was the place where I gained the first-hand experience of what farming was really like, though I wasn't actually quite into it,' said Li, who emigrated to Britain at the age of 10 and still visits the village once or twice a year.
These days, however, when Li thinks of Wong Chuk Yeung his mind is occupied not by idyllic memories but by the future of what is now a deserted village. Founded in the 17th century, Wong Chuk Yeung's houses are derelict and its terraced fields overgrown. The only visible signs of economic activity are those of TV producers, drawn to the village's spooky atmosphere for their ghost movies.
Members of the Li clan still see an opportunity to make their fortunes in Wong Chuk Yeung, with a developer's ambitious housing plan, even though it flies in the face of the government's small-house policy for the New Territories. Introduced in 1972 as a means of alleviating housing shortages and enhancing the cohesiveness of the clans, the policy gives male villagers of 18 years and older the right to build a single three-storey house, with a total floor space of no more than 2,100 square feet, in their ancestral villages once during their lifetime.
Always controversial, the policy has attracted much criticism in recent weeks - and revived calls for it to be scrapped - after a developer was reported to be acquiring land on the cheap, through legal loopholes.
Such deals are attractive to villagers because it helps them to avoid the expense and trouble of building the small house themselves - and of paying a land premium if they sell it within five years. Developers, on the other hand, get to build properties with a potentially lucrative resale value without having to go through the inconvenience and expense of rezoning, while also avoiding a premium for buying village land.
The deals are risky for both villagers and developers, as they contravene the Lands Department's ban on villagers selling or transferring their interests or rights before getting permission to build a house.
Under deals that have come to light, the villagers apply to the Lands Department for small-house grants on the land they have sold - falsely representing themselves as still the owners. The developer builds houses in villagers' names, later selling them for a profit.
The profits for developers can be attractive. Similar deals have been proposed for Clear Water Bay, elsewhere in the New Territories, where detached houses can fetch prices on average of HK$20 million, while costing only about HK$1 million to build, excluding the cost of land, renovation and other, hidden expenses.
In the case of Wong Chuk Yeung, if all the villagers chose to cash in their rights, and each of the 96 houses involved fetched HK$10 million on the market, the developer could potentially pocket a net profit of about HK$642 million.
The risks seem acceptable because the cash-for-rights agreements are being concluded anyway, in under-the-table deals known only to the villagers, developers and their lawyers. Despite the ban on such sales, Li frankly admitted that he had signed just such a deal to the rights he had inherited from his father, although he declined to identify the developer.
'I just want to save my village. If we do nothing for 10 more years it will further degrade into the rubble of ruined houses. No one will want to see it and no old villagers will be able to return to their homeland and birthplace before they go to heaven,' he said.
Under such deals, Wong Chuk Yeung's villagers will be offered either a lump sum of HK$500,000 or one of 32 houses to be built by the developer in the settlement. The dealer will sell the remaining 64 houses on the open market. Some of these houses, supposedly for the indigenous villagers, are aimed at wealthy expatriates.
'This will give us our village back,' Li said.
'We will have our own houses and our old and warm village life and neighbours will come back to live here again. This is what I dream of when I think of my life after retirement.'
For villagers like Li, the deal is a pragmatic one, offering more gains than losses. 'Yes, there will be other outsiders in the village, but we can still live together on part of the village site. This is the sacrifice worth making.' A second-generation member of the Li clan, Li is now the father of two children. His wife is also an indigenous villager from the New Territories, but, as a woman, she does not qualify for any small-house rights.
Li's dream is not shared by all the former Wong Chuk Yeung villagers who have settled in Britain. Some say they are strongly opposed to the idea of selling the land and carving up their village for development.
One descendant said he did not believe the deal was in the interests of his former home and might have violated the intent behind the introduction of the small-house policy to improve the living environment of the rural people.
'It is not good for the village if it falls into the hands of an outsider. This is in conflict with the purpose of the small-house policy,' he said.
But the descendant said he could not stop the deal because most villagers had already signed up for it, and that had exerted pressure on his family to dispose of their land, too.
Joshua, another, younger descendant, said the sale of housing and land rights had not taken the interest of future generations into account. He said the developer could have also undervalued the land to squeeze out as much as profit as possible from the deal.
'I never had the opportunity to experience village life and it is likely that I never will experience it in my ancestral village,' Joshua said.
'My main concern is not really how much the village has been sold for but whether any provisions have been made for the future generations of the Li family. I understand that leaving Wong Chuk Yeung derelict would be wasting a village and I am not opposed to regenerating it, but I do not want to lose complete control of where my family came from.'
Patrick Li, another descendant living in England, who has visited Wong Chuk Yeung with his father and brother, also opposed the deal. But as his father sold his properties to his uncle for a few hundred Hong Kong dollars decades ago, they had no say in the transaction.
'All the clan brothers had promised that Li family land would never fall in the hands of outsiders; of course, money has now changed their minds,' he said.
Some villagers have also accused Kenneth Li of greed in agreeing to the developer's terms. But he argued that what he was paid was even less than that received by the villagers of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen, who had to make way for the express rail link to Guangzhou. Kenneth Li declined to say how much he was paid, only saying it was less than HK$1 million.
He said that prior to 1997, the village's redevelopment was out of the question because it was close to a British military area and access to the village was sometimes strictly controlled. The only surfaced road linking the village to the outside world was said to be built by the British army too.
Li said his clan was incapable of revitalising the village on its own, as it would mean a lot of planning and negotiation with the government over the road and other infrastructure.
'This will be our last shot. All past attempts to restore the village failed. Co-operation with the developer is our only choice left. And some sacrifices have to be made, but I believe that, at the end of the day, we will get more than we lose,' he said.
Wong Chuk Yeung's descendants are not the only villagers in search of ways to save their ancestral homes. There may be dozens of similar abandoned villages - mostly in the New Territories - but the ways the villagers deal with the problems are different.
Wong Fu, an 86-year-old villager and a major landowner in So Lo Pun, a deserted village near the north-eastern border, said selling village land as well as the small-house right was not an option for his clan.
'We don't sell our land as this will make the village messy,' said Wong, who has spent several years in Britain. 'Those who sell the land should be expelled from the village and they should not be allowed to come back again.'
He now owns a restaurant chain in Hong Kong and a farm in Australia. Since his return, he has been living in a Tai Po village house and has been working hard on plans to restore So Lo Pun.
His obsession with the restoration - like turning the site into a cattle and sheep farm - has brought him adverse media coverage about vegetation removal and diversion of a stream at the site.
'I have shelved the plan,' said Wong. He laments the government bureaucracy that has virtually halted all development there by obstructing his efforts to restore his village, and because of an interim land-use restriction.
Tsang Yuk-on, an outspoken villager in Mui Tze Lam, said there was no immediate solution to the future of rural villages. However, as a first step, the public should step into the shoes of the New Territories villagers to understand their needs.
Tsang said some villagers might have no choice but to sell their land to developers.
'They do so because they don't see their future, and they don't know what could become of their land, and how this can support a living.'