Marching to the beat of different drummers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 January, 2012, 12:00am


From his 20th floor apartment in Mei Foo Sun Chuen, Lo Chung-cheong looks out from his living room on to an open expanse of park, highway, waterways and the faraway lights of Tsing Yi.

By this time next year, that view may be blocked by the construction of a tower block that will stand a few metres from the building in which Lo and about 400 other people live.

These residents, many of whom have been living on one of Hong Kong's largest private housing estates since it was built four decades ago, thought all development on the estate had finished.

They were furious when property developer Billion Star claimed residual rights to build high-rises on a plot of land on which they had hoped to see a clubhouse or garden.

They mobilised to defend their air, their sunlight and the value of flats worth an average of about HK$5,000 per square foot, which for some of them represents their entire life's savings.

Last March, they blocked the construction site in rotating shifts, night and day, for weeks to prevent the developers from starting construction.

But it was unlike protests at public housing estates, where social workers and NGOs usually take the lead in organising residents at the grass-roots level.

Mei Foo's protesters also include those from the middle class, who have drawn on their more privileged backgrounds to oppose Billion Star's development.

The middle-class protesters have pored over property documents and meet three times a week in a small groups to discuss what to do next.

They have also applied, unsuccessfully, for a judicial review of the Building Authority's decision to approve Billion Star's development.

Last December, six of these opponents, including Lo, all but gave up the fight and agreed to comply with a court injunction obtained by Billion Star ordering them to stop blocking the roads that lead to the site.

But Mei Foo's grass-roots activists say the fight is still far from over and that the key lies in elevating their campaign into a bigger social movement against property developers.

The original activists, who include the more elderly residents, are more conservative and opposed to the escalation.

'They want to do things the gentlemanly way, using things like a judicial review,' said sociology teaching assistant Sophia So, who lives in Mei Foo Sun Chuen Stage 6, a part of the complex not affected by Billion Star's proposed development.

She is also a member of Mei Foo Drum, a group of activists made up mostly of people in their mid-20s - So is 30 - who use new tactics to connect people elsewhere in Hong Kong to the Mei Foo cause.

The name Mei Foo Drum was chosen after developers tried one night in March last year to enter the construction site, only to be blocked by over 200 residents drawn to the site between 2am to 4am.

For weeks after that day, the activists would beat a drum outside the site to warn residents when the developers were coming.

Though the Mei Foo Drum group had not formed officially then - the name was used only by a group on Facebook - the use of social networking helped to organise a lie-in with more than 500 people present at the construction site on April 3. The pro-democracy group People's Power joined in, as did others who saw Mei Foo Drum's online call for solidarity.

Yet the conservatives among the original Mei Foo concern group were afraid of the negative image, So said. 'If we organise some kind of action, they may think it irrational or primitive,' she said. 'Some of the residents objected to holding the [lie-down] demonstration ... They think these things won't work and will create a negative image.'

Lo thinks his group's view is too cautious. 'If we don't have support from the rest of society, how can we protect Mei Foo? If we use only Mei Foo's strength, it is not enough,' he said. He cites cases of residents who have lost similar battles against developers - a shopping plaza in Tsuen Wan, a village relocated in Choi Yuen to make way for the MTR's new railway line to Shenzhen. More recently, near the Sha Tin racecourse, the Jockey Club's planned building was approved despite protests from neighbouring residents.

Lo thinks these protests have failed because they were limited to their specific areas and did not try to impact on Hong Kong in a broader way. 'We have to make it a bigger movement, to make it represent something,' Lo said.

Referring to the injunction sought by developer Billion Star forbidding protesters from blocking its access to the construction site, Lo said: 'If they come again, I won't block because I promised not to. But others would.' He wants to make the Mei Foo case into a symbol for Hong Kong so that come July, when Legislative Council elections come around again, a new ordinance regarding residual property rights will be passed.

'We don't talk politics but politics has affected us,' said Lo, who was born in Indonesia but went to Guangzhou in his teenage years with his father. 'There was only one choice [in Guangzhou] then,' he said. 'To blindly follow Mao.'

Lo became an extreme leftist, supporting the party. To him, the Cultural Revolution operated out of a kind of youthful idealism, convincing the masses that they too could make a difference.

Young Red Guards were recruited from backcountry areas to travel the country and spread a message of harmony for all society. There was a known enemy that people could rally against - the rich, the bourgeois.

Now Lo wants to use similar tactics to spread democracy in Hong Kong, where the bourgeoisie are the property developers.

'The reality of this society is that it protects for-profit companies, not people. If we use their laws to fight them, we can't do much. When you have to follow unfair laws, how can you be democratic?' said Lo.

'We can no longer just move within the law, not under the present jurisdictions. We are supposed to protest.'

But he added: 'The people in Mei Foo do not necessarily understand Mei Foo's importance in protesting.'

Since April there has been no significant social action at Mei Foo though there have been many court hearings.

One day last November, residents confronted a trucker at the site, but that was not an organised protest.

Lo said: 'If we keep going like this, being introverted, in the future, will there be people to support us? If all our hope hinges in the courtroom or on lawyers, that's a dangerous thing.

'Lawyers may not necessarily know what's best for us. But the people of Mei Foo know.'

Mei Foo Drum is now seeking to launch more creative community protests, such as holding a contest for new development ideas for the disputed site and starting a newsletter.

So is pessimistic about Lo's call to reform the system altogether, saying: 'It will take a long time to force the government to change the law or set up a mechanism.'

But perhaps it's comforting for Lo that his 24-year-old son, Zorrow - named after Zorro, the fictional masked crime fighter - has followed in his footsteps.

In November of last year, the younger Lo ran for a seat on the District Council in Sham Shui Po, which neighbours Mei Foo, as a People's Party candidate.

'I knew I would lose, but I kept fighting,' he said. 'It's about the message.' In the end, he got 10 per cent of the votes.

Zorrow Lo, along with other young activists in Mei Foo, plan to continue the fight. Along with their whistles and drums they have a voice and an agenda. And they have Facebook to help them organise.

The older or more conservative Mei Foo residents are still waging a slow battle through the courts.

They plan to fight the HK$1.4 million in costs the developer has hung on them as loss due to delays in construction.

But the young are rising up.

'Why should we care [about the development]? I can just move,' said the younger Lo. 'But this is worth fighting for.'

He is looking farther than a blocked apartment view, dreaming of a justice that is beyond winning and losing. And so, in Mei Foo Sun Chuen Stage 8, the drum beats on.


The number of storeys proposed by developer Billion Star for its new tower block at Mei Foo, which has led to 11 months of protests at the site