New town in northeast New Territories threatens businesses and jobs

New town in northeast NT will condemn businesses, as well as squatters, to an uncertain fate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:43am

If a new town is built in Kwu Tung in the northeast New Territories, bulldozers will not just raze hundreds of metal and concrete squatter homes. They will also destroy businesses and factories, including one run by James Pong Yuen-shin.

Starting over is a fate that the family has endured before.

Pong's father started Yuet Wo Food Factory in 1945, bottling cooking oil and vinegar in Tsuen Wan. In the 1970s, the government seized the factory's land for development of a new town. It took the family almost 10 years - and numerous government approvals - to buy a new plot and build its current facility on 30,000 sq ft in Sheung Shui district.

"It's not as easy as moving a home. We have to honour our commitment to our customers," said Pong, who took over the factory from his father.

Yuet Wo Food Factory is one of six factories that will close if the government pursues its controversial plan to develop 614 hectares of rural land in the city's northeast in order to increase the housing supply and thus rein in property prices. The area includes at least five non-indigenous villages in Kwu Tung and Fanling North, and at least 70 per cent of the land is privately owned.

Starting in 2018, more than 60,000 new public and private flats would be built, to house 174,000 residents. The new towns would also include shops, offices, schools and hospitals - with 24 hectares devoted to commercial activity and research and development.

But villagers and business owners say that officials, in trying to meet their target of building 470,000 flats in the next decade, could sunder small-business owners and their vital role in the economy. Businesses in Kwu Tong's century-old village grow vegetables, make wooden construction materials, repair cars, recycle waste, rent out heavy construction machinery and care for the elderly in 16 homes - employing many of the more than 5,000 village residents.

Yuet Wo Food Factory enjoys sales of HK$50 million annually, serving hundreds of chain restaurants and cha chaan teng, or tea houses, in the city. Pong said the city had proposed no help with relocation other than cash compensation. He said he had not received a specific offer.

The government has not committed to providing the factory a new site, and would not disclose the amount of compensation offered.

Yuet Wo's workers live in Kwu Tung and nearby villages, Pong said, meaning they could suffer doubly: many would lose their homes as well as their jobs.

"There is only four years left but still we don't know what options will be offered by the government," he said.

The Kwu Tung development project is one of several in the works. Kwu Tung's residents were the first to be affected.

The project - first broached in 2007 - heated up in May when the Development Bureau asked the Legislative Council for HK$340 million to pay for a preliminary site investigation.

Protests turned ugly in June when about 100 people broke into the Legislative Council building and occupied its lobby. A week later, on June 14, the police forcibly removed about 200 protesters who refused to leave the area at midnight.

Twenty-one were arrested.

The protest battlefield will shift to the Town Planning Board after pro-government lawmakers approved financing for the development. The planning board, which is responsible for final approval, says it will examine more than 50,000 opposing views from the public.

"If this new-town project falls apart, the city's competitiveness won't be damaged right away. But if other housing projects in the pipeline face the same fate, the chance of reining in property prices is slim," warned Shih Wing-ching, a former member of the Commission on Strategic Development. Stopping development in the far north "means we keep postponing a better quality of life and hindering the social mobility of younger ones".

Shih is founder of the city's largest real-estate agency, Centaline Group.

A Development Bureau spokeswoman said the government would compensate the affected business owners with cash so that they could acquire their own land to continue their businesses. She added that the government would communicate with owners and address their demands, provided that public money was put to the best use and served the public interest.

As with many aspects of life in Hong Kong, the path to the success of Yuet Wo Food Factory is not straightforward.

The presence of the factory, just a few hundred metres from the village's entrance, is announced by the smell of soy sauce and processed beans housed in rows of giant urns.

Pong said his factory improved the taste of food at hundreds of restaurants. "I can't disclose names of my clients. All I can tell is that our unique sauces have attracted many fans."

A five-minute drive from the soy sauce factory is a patch of land where cabbages, carrots and bananas grow. Sister Xin, a sobriquet given by her neighbours, looks after the produce growing on a small lot alongside a squatter house. She burns fallen leaves, which become fertiliser for her vegetables.

She lives in a shack, made of bricks and covered with a metal sheet, built by her 96-year-old father-in-law who recently died.

The squat comprises three bedrooms and two living rooms, linking to an open kitchen that is dark and hot. Poor drainage attracts mosquitoes.

Xin, originally from Guangxi , settled in Hong Kong seven years ago after a 20-year relationship with her Hong Kong husband. She said she fell in love with the village at first sight.

"Frankly, I married him because I liked the fact that I could farm here," she said, "As a new immigrant, it's very stressful to adapt to a new living environment. Farming is a way of relief."

When it's hot and her yield is large, she says she shares some vegetables with the elderly in the residential care homes nearby.

Lee Siu-wah, a representative of villagers who oppose the project, said the village produced at least two tonnes of vegetables a day. Most are sent to the wholesale market in Cheung Sha Wan.

Farm-fresh produce from Kwu Tung totalled 8 per cent of the 224 tonnes of local produce handled by the Vegetable Marketing Organisation in 2012, according to Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department statistics. But local produce still accounts for a tiny share - 2 per cent - of the overall market.

The threat of development, which has been looming for the past six years, has stopped Xin refurbishing her house, enlarging her garden and installing air conditioners for her two sons.

"I really don't know if I should invest more in our place, as I don't know when the bulldozers will come. Villagers here are under tremendous mental pressure," she said.

She hopes the village can one day host visitors interested in seeing the rural side of Hong Kong. "Why can't the government provide us the basic infrastructure and let the rural business prosper?"

The city's urban-planning studies seldom take into account villagers' efforts, investments and the community relationships such neighbourhoods nourish, said Ng Mee-kam, a professor at Chinese University who specialises in sustainable development.

"The government ends up planning new towns with no character. They all look similar," she said. "We are living closely together but we feel alone. There is no space for gathering."

To reach consensus with homeowners, Ng said, the government should allow public comment on planning studies. "It may not be bad economically if the government stops and reviews the project."

But Chau Kwong-wing, chairman and professor of the real estate and construction department at the University of Hong Kong, warned of a possible domino effect if the Kwu Tung project is delayed. "Other housing projects in the pipeline may fall apart too," he said.

The administration has set a target of building nearly 470,000 public and private flats in the next 10 years, some in at least five new towns in Hung Shui Kiu, Yuen Long South, Kam Tin South, the northeastern New Territories and Tung Chung - including sites to be rezoned in the next few years. That area would be 30 times the size of Taikoo Shing, and provide industrial space 73 times the size of the Science and Technology Parks in Tai Po.

New towns in Hung Shui Kiu and Yuen Long South face similar challenges; 62 and 80 per cent of the land respectively is privately owned.

Without new housing, development advocates say Hong Kong stands to become even more divided between rich and poor, reducing the city's attractiveness to overseas talent and multinational companies.

More than 170,000 Hongkongers were living in 66,900 subdivided flats in urban areas as of last year, according to the government. Some wait years for public flats - there are more than 248,000 applicants.

Shih, of Centaline Group, said residents must face the reality that Hong Kong has high land prices; land revenue is the third-biggest income source for the government.

"To raise our standard of living comparable to other developed cities like Singapore, where citizens enjoy a more spacious environment, we need to at least double the amount of existing housing sites," he said.

The average flat size for a household in Guangzhou is about 1,000 sq ft compared with 500 sq ft in Hong Kong.

Shih said an imperfect approach to public consultation had intensified opposition to development in the city.

"Let's go back and ask the public what Hong Kong should become in the next 10 years. Then we can make choices more easily and go for it."