While following the debate about whether Hong Kong should build homes in country parks, I am reminded of one of the most touching films I have ever seen, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, by Italian director Ermanno Olmi, which tells the story of a peasant family in 19th-century Lombardy.
The peasants lead a precarious existence on the fringe of a huge country estate and, one severe winter, the father dares to cut down a tree to make clogs for his barefoot son. For this crime, the family is thrown out of the estate while the lord of the manor continues to enjoy all his trappings.
Hong Kong owes its country park policy to rule by the British, whose "feudal lords" at home made sure large sections of land were cordoned off for their hunting activities. In fact, many were originally known as "deer parks" and were surrounded by hedges to keep the deer in and people out. England remains an overcrowded island where the aristocracy still makes a living as renters of real estate. Walking and picnicking in the park make sense in temperate climates but I am not sure about parks in hot, humid climates.
Not all British policies are bad but Hong Kong has to follow its own priorities. The worship of nature has become the new superstition among the chattering classes of the world, who use their "natural, organic" beliefs as a tool for distinguishing themselves from the "great unwashed". I dare say that Hong Kong's country parks are used mostly by the well-heeled, while the poor people of Sham Shui Po drown their sorrows in the mahjong parlours or the "new country parks" - shopping malls.
If some of the space in the country parks were used for housing, poor people would be vastly better off and Hong Kong need not become any uglier, provided planning is carried out well and the homes are designed to please. Sticking a tree in a podium of glass and chrome does not make it "sustainable" or beautiful. Those who have seen the beauty of St Mark's Square in Venice know that you can build beautiful public squares without a blade of grass.
Nature worship is not morally superior per se. It was practised by German Romantics and a section of Japanese Shinto people, who in turn passed it on to the fascists of Japan and Germany. Hitler liked to holiday amid "nature" in his Eagle's Nest and was a vegetarian. It did not prevent him from sending people to death camps.
Hong Kong's policymakers should take a clear look at how they are going to use the limited land supply for the benefit of the poor, instead of being bullied into a position that if they do not reserve a large section of country parks and golf clubs for the pleasure of the elite, then somehow they are committing an environmental crime.
Balakrishnan Narayanan is a company director who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years