She was a small woman, this lawyer’s mother, but she had an indomitable will. Something that he’s perhaps inherited. And unluckily for the Hong Kong government, she also had some money saved up, which she handed to her son to use for legal challenges to save Victoria Harbour.
Winston Chu Ka-sun didn’t set out to be a lawyer. He still hankers for a career as a nuclear physicist. “It’s true, it’s what I’d like to be.”
At 73, he also has a secret wish to be a beach bum, if only someone would let him slip off with his towel and his notebook for his other passion – other than Victoria Harbour – of writing poetry.
Chu received death threats and notes sent to his wife threatening rape, as he spent years scouring over maps concerning the government’s intentions regarding harbour reclamation. He used his legal knowledge and his family money to fight the government in the courts and preserve Victoria Harbour for the people.
“I’m not a hero, I just feel like an idiot who stands up,” says Chu. “The spirit of Hong Kong did not come from me but from my mother. She loved Hong Kong and the harbour. I started the job under her command, and having been trained as a lawyer in England I caught a little of the Bulldog spirit – that once I bite, I do not let go.”
So Chu began a fight that he has continued for 19 years.
In 1995 he founded the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, with himself as chairman and Christine Loh Kung-wai as his deputy. The now environment deputy was then a legislator and headed Friends of the Earth.
Chu had two motivations to keep him going when things got tough – his late mother, Cissy Chu Fok Wing-yue, and the ordinary people who touched his heart.
“I’d get into a taxi and the driver would refuse to let me pay. I would be in a restaurant and suddenly the meal was paid for,” he recalls.
While British navigators used to hail the harbour for its anchorage, these days a voracious demand for land has seen it shrink into what has been described as a ditch.
There were several steps to get people to care, says Chu. “Information and then education. I had to educate the public and held dozens of seminars and speeches. And then the third step was legislation.”
The first victory was in 1996 when the government tried to reclaim 190 hectares of Green Island in 1996. Chu and Loh subsequently got the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance enacted. Chu and the society would take the government to court several times, winning most times, though the government still went ahead with some reclamation. “The government just decided to ignore the law,” says Chu.
One key turning point, Chu recalls, is when the society held a “Hand-in-Hand” rally in March 2004. More than 10,000 people formed a human chain along the harbour from Central to Wan Chai to protest against reclamation.
Chu is child number six of 12 and says he enjoyed growing up with so many siblings. He was sent to southern England for his secondary education.
“We had to go to church three times a day,” he recalls. “My Catholic education was important. It gave me a healthy disregard for money, fame, position and power. That also came from my Buddhist teaching later.”
In 2003, due to the threats against his family, Chu stepped down as society chairman and Loh took over. But he still continues to give the society legal advice. He also teaches law at the University of Hong Kong, among other academic institutions.
He says he is now working with the government on a booklet to be presented to the Harbourfront Commission.
Chu still finds time for his other great passion – poetry.
“I’ve studied poetry very seriously,” he says. “I can recite you Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning, Yeats, and Keats, this is my interest. My wife, Louise, married me not because I am a lawyer but because I wrote poetry.”