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Living heritage of Hong Kong

Lai Chi Wo village chief insists on go-ahead for revitalisation plan despite opposing homeowners

The row centres on empty dwellings to be converted into guest houses, but some villagers who have moved overseas say they were not properly consulted

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 7:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 10:47pm

A HK$50 million project to revitalise a 400-year-old Hong Kong village in Lai Chi Wo would not be derailed by a small group of opposing locals, the enclave’s leader said on Tuesday.

Village chief Tsang Wai-yip’s remarks were part of a bid to clear the air on “overblown” claims that some disgruntled villagers were against the plan to convert empty dwellings in the area into guest houses. They had threatened to complain to town planners and even block roads into the village if the project was not shelved.

Launched by the Hong Kong Countryside Foundation – a charity dedicated to conserving the city’s countryside – the development is aimed at revitalising the area and promoting Hakka culture.

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“I cannot compromise the interests of all the other villagers who will benefit from this scheme just for about 20 households who oppose it,” Tsang told the Post. There are about 200 families with ties to the village, but most are living overseas.

According to media reports, some villagers who have recently returned from Britain are unhappy with the “harsh contractual terms” set out in the leasing agreements under the project. They also claimed that they were not properly consulted on the matter.

But Tsang, who chairs a social enterprise that runs the homes, said none of the opposing villagers were directly involved in the project, which will restore and transform a first batch of 12 abandoned homes into guest houses in the northeastern New Territories enclave.

At least one owner has pulled out of the scheme, but Tsang said it was because of “family problems” rather than contract issues.

The plan, funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, was approved by the Town Planning Board in August. It is part of a larger government scheme to conserve and promote sustainable development in rural areas, as raised by officials last year and in 2015.

“No private property rights or interests have been infringed,” Tsang said. “We flew to Belfast and Birmingham last July to consult villagers. We showed them all the PDF files of the contracts, even before we received money from the Jockey Club.”

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Tsang said he was baffled as to why, given the dilapidated state of some of the houses, the villagers chose not to participate in the scheme which would provide money for refurbishments.

He cited the construction of a long-awaited jetty which had been lobbied for, as evidence of the benefits of the project. The jetty is now served by a ferry service from Ma Liu Shui.

Tsang said the opposing villagers had also declined to join an earlier scheme to lease private farmland out to non-profit groups to revive fallow paddy fields and promote agricultural and eco-tourism.

Lam Chiu-ying, chairman of the foundation, was also perplexed.

“Well I have to be frank, I don’t understand this. Because what we’re doing is to add vitality to the village, to make it liveable again to the extent that once they retire, they can return to their home village,” Lam said in an interview after a radio programme, adding that he was willing to speak to villagers if they were willing to communicate.

Lam would not say if he was worried that threats of any further action, such as attempts to close off the village to stop renovation work, would affect the plan’s commencement.

“If they close a village, it means they’re trying to kill the village, I would invite them to think whether their ancestors would agree to this idea.”

The roads into Lai Chi Wo are footpaths on public land.

Speaking on the radio programme, one resident who opposed the plan blamed a lack of proper consultation.

“The village chief just went ahead with it. It gave us the feeling that he held a ‘do first, ask questions later’ mentality,” said the man, also surnamed Tsang.

He said the village as a whole “should also reap some benefits” in return, such as having an office built in the area, for members to discuss affairs, celebrate events and hold polls.