Illegal niches alive despite blacklist
Ada Lee and Cheung Chi-fai
Only a handful of illegal private columbariums have sought to legalise their operations during the past year, ever since the government published a list that named and shamed them.
Just 10 out of the 65 dubious operators have filed retrospective planning or land approval applications to the Town Planning Board as of the end of September to legalise their niche facilities in accordance with land use laws, an update from the Development Bureau shows.
They are asking the board to approve a total of about 74,000 funeral-urn niches - some already sold and occupied - in their facilities in the New Territories. None has secured approval so far, as most of the applications will be processed next year.
'The lukewarm response indicates they [operators] don't even want to take steps to make things right,' said Eddie Tse Sai-kit, from the Columbarium Concern Group.
Those who did send applications should discontinue their illegal operations first, Tse said. 'The board can't be so schizophrenic as to give approval to those who need to rectify their wrongdoings first,' he said.
The government released the first name-and-shame list to give more information to potential buyers of urn niches sold in the private sector. It shows 31 operators fulfilling both land and planning rules. Of the 65 who run foul of the law, only three have been sanctioned by the Planning Department.
A licensing system for private columbariums, unveiled yesterday, proposes that operators will not get a permit if they fail to follow planning and land rules. They have an 18-month grace period to rectify their status before getting a licence.
Lai Hau-yan, vice-chairman of the Columbarium Merchants Association, said he believed members would actively seek legitimacy with the government now that a licensing system had been proposed.
The 10 operators that are seeking to legalise their businesses are suspected of breaching planning rules such as setting up shop on sites zoned as a green belt, village development, residential or government institution, without approval from the board. Another 11 listed operators have broken land leases or are occupying government land.
One example is Yuen Fuk Yuen, an underground urn storage facility on Ma Shi Chau island, designated a geologically important area. The operator tried to seek modifications of the lease so that it could continue operations.
But its negotiations with lands officials have broken down and it has to relocate three dozen urns buried on the island by the end of February.
Gates at the columbarium on the island were shut yesterday. There were candles in front of a Buddha statue, but no one was seen at the site. Some 30 gravestones were laid sparsely across the land.
Hung Hom district councillor Pius Yum Kwok-tung said he was disappointed that licensed undertakers could ask for exemptions from the proposed law. His area is a known black spot for illegal columbariums.
Licensed funeral-service providers are now allowed to store human ashes 'temporarily' before they move on to a permanent facility. Some urns, however, had been stored in the 'temporary' location for as long as a decade, Yum said.
He said some undertakers would hide the urns in shops next to their registered unit to skirt inspections.
The South China Morning Post, on a visit to Winslow Street in Hung Hom yesterday, found a few residential buildings housing columbariums. Yum estimates there are 17 unregulated columbariums in the district, but the bureau has listed only one as illegal.
Lai Wan-hoi, 82, who lives on Wa Fung Street, said she was very disturbed by the presence of a columbarium on the first floor of her building.
'It's not good to have living and dead people in the same building,' she said. 'My flat also stinks of paper offerings.'
Columbarium operators applying for a licence must:
Own the land, or have the right to use the site for at least five years (for pre-existing columbariums).
Ensure the premises comply with town planning, building, fire safety, environmental hygiene and protection laws.
Enter into a contract with patrons that spells out the end date of use.
Sell niches only to patrons with a dedicated nominee specified for each niche to minimise speculation.
Set up a maintenance fund.
Keep a register of patrons for enforcement agency to inspect.
Submit a plan covering admission control, traffic and crowd management especially during peak grave-sweeping days.