Residents fight back against Hong Kong's urban renewal projects

Seemingly relentless urban renewal projects are swelling the ranks of activists fighting to secure fairer deals for poor residents caught in the drive towards gentrification, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 12:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 12:21pm

When Wong Lai-chung learned in 2004 that urban renewal was coming to Sham Shui Po, he didn't think it would spell the end of his floral plaque business. It would just mean another move, he thought; after all, he had relocated to his Fuk Wing Street premises four years earlier after housing officials acquired his original shop space in Cheung Sha Wan for redevelopment.

Instead, it marked the start of lengthy struggle involving countless clashes with redevelopment officials and a three-year lawsuit.

"The whole experience has been traumatic and heartbreaking," Wong says.

It was so painful he felt compelled to help other people facing the same plight. Wong joined the Shamshuipo Urban Renewal Concern Group and is currently helping residents whose lives will be upended by another project announced in February to redevelop an area between Tonkin and Un Chau streets.

Set up in 2001, the Urban Renewal Authority is charged with the mission to "address Hong Kong's acute urban decay problem and improve the living conditions of residents in dilapidated urban areas". But as high-end high-rises emerged from the rubble of demolition, the process has disenfranchised thousands of low-income residents and small-business owners in old districts and created a swelling number of activists like Wong.

"I have undergone the turmoil myself," he says. "Learning about my experience, residents will face less shock and stress because they will know what they are in for."

As Wong sees it, many residents get a raw deal in the urban renewal process and rarely are they able to continue running their businesses or living in their original neighbourhoods.

Rather than accept compensation for the loss of their shop spaces in Sham Shui Po, Wong and 10 fellow business owners appealed to the URA to set aside two blocks where they could continue operations.

"We didn't want to stand in the way of redevelopment," he says. "But the 10 of us ran garages, florists, stationery stores and tea shops in the area. The main clientele for small businesses like ours are residents in the neighbourhood. Once you move, it's difficult to sustain the business." Even relocating a couple of streets away could prove ruinous, he adds, citing the case of a tarpaulin dealer which folded two years after it was forced to move.

However, the appeal was rejected.

With help from the Legal Aid Department, Wong filed suit against the URA and the Housing Society, which collaborated in the project, arguing the land resumption was illegal as they failed to assess the effect of redevelopment on people in the neighbourhood.

"I knew there wasn't much chance of winning the case, but I wanted society to know how opaque the urban renewal process was," Wong says. "Redevelopment projects are complex. Residents have the right to know what the procedures and their rights are."

Moreover, some Housing Society officials "were acting like bullies, just hell-bent on getting the land back", he adds.

When an elderly tenant couldn't move out before the deadline, officials threatened that HK$100 would be deducted from her compensation for every day that she overstayed. Such actions "put the elderly under a lot of stress".

When a volunteer began taking photos of evictions, the society sued him for obstructing their work, Wong says.

In Kwun Tong, former hawker Chan Chi-yung also turned activist after undergoing a similar struggle to retain his business and way of life.

When he put up HK$450,000 in 1980 to buy a 400 sq ft stall on Yan Shun Lane, Kwun Tong, Chan thought that would be the end of his itinerant life. Those expectations have since been crushed. During a 2007 exercise to register residents affected by renewal projects, officials categorised his stall as an illegal structure.

"I had been selling clothes there for three decades without interference from the government; suddenly they said the shop which I used my life's savings to buy was an illegal structure."

The URA offered to pay each of the 30 affected stall owners HK$54,620 in compensation - but only if they successfully tendered for a space at one of the government's emptier markets. "There's no way we can sustain our business in a market that has low usage rate," Chan says.

Rallying the owners, he successfully fought to double the offer to HK$109,240 - without any conditions.

Despite the cash compensation only five stallholders managed to restart their business in wet markets elsewhere and others turned to alternative work, he says.

Chan continues to help other small retailers in similar predicaments, among them is Lee Suk-yin, the sole holdout at the 40-year-old Mut Wah Street market, which is facing demolition.

"The URA promised stall operators there would be a seamless transition to a new market being built in Tung Yan Street, Chan says. "They would only have to close their shops briefly and relocate when the venue is ready. But completion has been delayed again and again. They originally said it would be ready by the end of 2013, but the market is still under construction. The URA reneged on their promise.

"All other stallholders have taken the money and left, but Lee Suk-yin would rather forego compensation than lose the chance to continue doing business before the new market is open."

Lee says she has dug in because she needs to maintain contact with the network of customers she has built up in the neighbourhood over the past 30 years.

"I know what I will make during that period is less than the compensation, but I can't just close my business; my clientele are all loyal customers who won't take the trouble to dig you out if you move without any notice."

Instead of improving living standards for people in ageing districts, urban renewal projects wind up driving out the mainly low-income residents and destroying the livelihoods of small business owners, Chan says.

"The Housing Society is building high-end flats [in Kwun Tong] now. In 10 years, the district will be filled with shopping malls, homogeneous chain stores and luxury flats. The characteristics of the neighbourhood will be lost forever."

Stage director Wu Hoi-Fai came to the same conclusion when he was gathering material for his documentary theatre production, Once Upon a Time in Choi Yuen Chuen, which was presented last month.

About 200 households were forced to leave the farming community in Pat Heung in 2011 to make way for the express rail link to Guangzhou. Some villagers used their compensation towards paying part of the costs of a flat in urban centres; others were put up in temporary quarters while a new village was being built near the original site.

In interviewing the displaced villagers for his play, Wu found that their old way of life, growing vegetables and keeping bees had vanished. "The temporary quarters were intended to be used for only a year. They are rickety corrugated-iron houses with poor living conditions. But the villagers are still there after three years," Wu says.

Construction of the new village was delayed by disputes over the use of a road leading to the site, he says. Indigenous residents from surrounding villages blocked trucks bringing in building material and would not allow passage until Choi Yuen Tsuen residents paid for right of way so work was held up for a long time.

Not only were the lives of the villagers irrevocably transformed, Wu says the Choi Yuen Tsuen conflict also made activists of volunteers who helped the villagers in their fight to preserve their community.

Among them were a school teacher who went on to start the Society for Indigenous Learning, an organisation promoting a traditional village lifestyle and nature education, and a district councillor who later led a campaign to preserve Nam Sang Wai wetlands in Yuen Long.

"The experience of fighting for the rights of the villagers transformed how they view the relationship between development and preservation," Wu says. "They are still working [on such issues] long after the Choi Yuen Tsuen incident is over."