Even in death, Hong Kong’s indigenous villagers live large

For most of us, even getting an urn space to contain our ashes is near-impossible, yet villagers in the New Territories are granted lavish burial sites

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 1:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 3:35pm

It’s good to be an indigenous villager, even if you don’t live in the New Territories, or even in Hong Kong. If you are male, you are guaranteed a plot of land as a birthright that instantly makes you a multimillionaire in today’s property market.

OK, that’s kind of sexist. But when you die, gender equality kicks in. Since the mid-1980s, the government has set aside an estimated 4,000 hectares – about half the size of Hong Kong Island – for indigenous burials. These are not tiny urn spaces, but actual small plots of land. And they can be quite ostentatious, because their physical sizes are ill-defined and rarely enforced, like much else when it comes to land in the New Territories.

Rights and wrongs: Hong Kong’s small-house policy for indigenous villagers is outdated and unfair

Many urbanites can’t afford proper housing in life, or urn spaces when they are dead. But if you are an indigenous villager, you are set for life – and the afterlife.

A new licensing regime will come into effect this summer to regulate operators under the Private Columbaria Ordinance. In light of the new regulatory regime, officials are also thinking of revising utility fees and terms of usage for urns at eight public columbariums.

Queues for the public service range from three to eight years, depending on the location of the columbium. The city is expected to face a shortage of 400,000 urn spaces by 2023 and things will only get worse because of our ageing population. There are about 50,000 deaths each year.

Licence scheme will offer better protections for private columbarium customers

Since many urn spaces are neglected and have no visitors after some years, one idea is to require periodic lease renewal. If it’s not renewed, an urn space may be vacated for the recently deceased. That makes sense, as long as they don’t flush the ashes down a toilet.

But there is nary a word from the government about extensive burial land reserved in the New Territories. Presumably, it is not an indigenous land right remotely comparable to that guaranteed under the so-called small-house policy and can be more easily challenged in court. Some of that land should be shared with urbanites for urn storage or burial; other sites may be considered for housing if suitable.

Remember, there are already more than 900 hectares reserved for small houses. 

Why is so much land disproportionately reserved for villagers, even in death, when the government is supposed to be searching high and low for land to build new homes and make housing affordable?