The posh Fanling golf course at the centre of a new town development row is not so exclusive after all. Eight hundred indigenous villagers living nearby have enjoyed free access to the course owing to a deal their ancestors struck when they sold the land to the club's owners decades ago.
Villagers have joined the ranks of the club's wealthy members in opposing a possible takeover by the government of the 176 hectare site to make way for a new town. An alternative would require bulldozing the homes of thousands of village families elsewhere.
"The golf courses are worth keeping if it is open to more local villagers," said Bowie Hau Chi-keung, chairman of the Sheung Shui District Rural Committee. "The city is too densely built and we need the space."
Yesterday, Hau led a television crew to the "Old Course", where a few elderly villagers were seen running around with their golf clubs. They said the exercise had kept them healthy over the years.
The first of the three courses, the Old Course was built in 1911. According to villagers, the Hong Kong Golf Club bought 12 lots from them in the 1930s for expansion.
Under the initial deal, indigenous villagers from about eight villages in Sheung Shui and one in Fanling were able to use the Old Course for free and to enter the site to sweep the grave sites.
"We can only play at the second to 16th holes on that course. We can't play the first hole, which is near the clubhouse," a village representative said.
"There's no conflict with club members because the staff make sure we play separately. It's a beautiful place," he said.
Some villagers have emerged as minor golf stars, such as Konstantin Liu Lok-tin, who played for Hong Kong at the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010.
When the club closed the course for renovation in 2006, villagers staged a protest demanding "playing rights" and use of the two other courses.
In the end, the club agreed to let villagers who had been "recognised" by the rural committee to use the Old Course, the Home Affairs Department said.
The committee compiled a registration list of 800 villagers, who can use the course every day after 3.30pm. Usage rights cannot be transferred to the next generation.
The greens fee for non-members is HK$2,000.
Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who supports redeveloping the golf club, said the rights of the indigenous villagers were not the key issue. "Their privileges cannot be compared with the predicament of those who now face the threat of losing their homes after residing in the area for generations," he said.