Neighbourhood Sounds

Kwu Tung: villagers vow to fight new town development plan

Kwu Tung, in the northern New Territories, is in the government's sights for redevelopment, but its feisty residents have other ideas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 11:36am

For most of his life, Lee Siu-wah desired nothing more than the quiet life he enjoyed in Kwu Tung, in the northern reaches of the New Territories.

Little did he expect that he would one day be swept up in a battle to save his home village from being swept off the map in a major redevelopment project by the government.

The threat of demolition brought Lee, 40, in front of the government offices in Admiralty late last month, one of thousands of demonstrators who campaigned on a sweltering Sunday against plans to transform Kwu Tung's wide swathe of agricultural lands into yet another satellite town.

"We will be evicted, our houses bulldozed, the whole place reconstructed," said Lee, now the chairman of a concern group overseeing the development of the village, which in Chinese means "old cave".

Kwu Tung, which has a population of about 6,000, and neighbouring hamlets will be uprooted in the next decade to make way for modern housing complexes. The Kwu Tung development is expected to house some 65,000 people in 20 years' time.

The Development Bureau says 22,000 flats will be provided by 2030.

Unlike new towns such as Tseung Kwan O and Tung Chung, which were mostly built on reclaimed land but kept surrounding rural villages intact, Kwu Tung will go down a different road.

Lee said the first settlers who helped build the village only arrived shortly after 1898, when the British colonial authorities leased the New Territories. As such, Kwu Tung's residents are not officially regarded as indigenous villagers.

Most Kwu Tung villagers do not qualify under the small house policy, which grants male indigenous adults the right to secure land and build homes of three storeys and 2,100 sq ft. Their rights to use rural land are also different from residents who lived there before 1898.

Because of this, the government has eyed Kwu Tung as an easy target for its new expansion. Lee said 5,000 people living in 14 of the village's 18 rural settlements would have to move out.

The 500-hectare land earmarked for redevelopment - as one of three North East New Territories New Development Areas - today is a mix of farms and factories - all of which may disappear.

Towards the south lay warehouses and factories, many of them established after the second world war. They offer a wide range of products, from steel and plastics to wholesale timber. Some of the factories look rather primitive and unkempt these days, except for those of a particularly sustainable industry largely unknown to urbanites - soy sauce production.

There is a cluster of four soy sauce plants in Kwu Tung. One of them, owned by the Yuet Wo Sauce Factory, was built 30 years ago.

One can hardly escape the strong scent of fermenting soya beans wafting from hundreds of sauce vats at Yuet Wo. But owner Pong Yuen-sin smells trouble on the horizon, saying the authorities let these factories down by failing to keep repeated pledges to help local businesses.

"The government has made no attempt to consult us [about its redevelopment plan]," says Pong, who took over the business founded by his father in 1945.

Pong's biggest concern is how to relocate his dozens of workers, most of them local villagers, once redevelopment gets under way.

"To maintain product quality, it would take several years for me to build another plant somewhere and let the two plants work in tandem, before this one can be closed," he says.

Several villages away, Mrs Tsang, in her 60s, is busy growing her papayas and eggplants. "All of them are organic," she says with pride.

Like Tsang, some old villagers still farm nowadays, though most do so only for their own consumption. Only a handful sell their produce to a co-operative that supplies the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market.

Tsang is worried about her future: "How can I continue to garden if the government forces me to move to a public housing estate?"

The Development Bureau has pledged to help farmers adjust to their new living situation, but has provided no specific details so far.

Meanwhile, an MTR station has been planned for Kwu Tung along the East Rail's Lok Ma Chau Spur Line, but it will not open until redevelopment is finished.

Moving much quicker than the bureaucrats are property developers, whose new gated complexes, mostly featuring European-style, low-density houses, have sprouted up across Kwu Tung. It was reported that those properties' sales have been upbeat, presumably on optimistic forecasts for Kwu Tung's future.

But Lee, the concern group chairman, remains defiant and is adamant that he will stand his ground. He plans to attend a government consultation on September 22, and vows to press officials to scrap a plan which will destroy many homes in Kwu Tung.

Standing in the midst of trees and houses, Lee looks into distance and points to a skyscraper. It is the 400-metre-high Kingkey 100 Plaza in Shenzhen, which was once as much a village as Kwu Tung before it was turned into a bustling special economic zone 30 years ago.

"We want our village to stay just as it is," says Lee. "We don't need our homeland to become like that."

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