Welcome to Repulsive Bay
If you want to see what a combination of incompetent government and the free rein given to property developers can do to Hong Kong's iconic tourist sites, take a trip to Repulse Bay beach. It is a disgrace.
Not the beach itself, which is fine, or even the quality of the water, which has improved. This is the best known of all Hong Kong's beaches, celebrated in all the tourist literature for its size, shape and backdrop of mountains and high-rise apartments - and supposedly for its restaurant and leisure facilities.
But what do you find at ground level, on Beach Road? Not a single eating place, or other venue where visitors can enjoy the view and a drink, or meal.
Along the southern one-third of the beach, stretching for some 200 metres, is a great scar in the beachside land: rusting girders backed by a high concrete wall, emblazoned with the name of the Emperor Group developers. Adjacent to the concrete wall sits a line of tourist buses, fumes belching, air conditioners whirring as they wait for the return of the tourists. They can get to the beach only by walking along the concrete wall to the Buddhist temple at the far end.
This great scar and the hideous concrete wall have been there for some six years. Emperor knocked down the low-rise collection of little restaurants, bars and boutiques known as the Lido which used to occupy the site. But it has failed to build the massive, five-storey 'multifunctional leisure arcade' and shopping complex that an amazingly indulgent government gave it permission to put up.
This development was supposed to have been finished by 2003. But the work has, in fact, barely begun. The Emperor website says it will be finished in 2008, but there is no particular reason to believe the company now, more than before. Meanwhile, it is clear that the government made no time stipulation when it gave permission for this big complex. One has to wonder why a developer is allowed to despoil a major tourist site without a squeak from the government or the publicly funded tourist-promotion bodies.
This is especially curious since, as far back as April 2001, Howard Young, the tourism representative in the Legislative Council, asked about the 'very unsightly' works along Beach Road and the lack of facilities to park tourist buses. What measures was the government taking to improve the streetscape?
He got the usual non-answer from the relevant official but, with the reminder that this was a private development - the implication being that the developer could do whatever it liked regardless of the public interest.
Meanwhile, down at the northern end of the beach, the equivalent space is occupied by a government-owned building that used to house beachside restaurants. The food may not have been the best, but the view of an autumn evening was sublime. Those were closed about two years ago and, although the building has been renovated, it remains shuttered.
'Keep out' notices tell the visitor that it is the domain of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. So I wrote to the department, asking what was happening to the building. It replied that such queries were now being handled by the office to whom my letter had been passed - the 1823 Citizen's Easy Link. That is supposed to answer queries on behalf of 16 government departments, and claims to be 'a service that never sleeps'. I am still awaiting a response from this black hole of bureaucracy.
The government already has a lot to answer for in spoiling tourist sites. In Stanley, it replaced part of the market and a playground with an ugly municipal building, and is reclaiming a large part of the beach along Stanley Main Street to make way for more concrete.
Now we learn that the same despoilers have plans to 'develop' Mui Wo into 'an historic rural township'. This means destroying history and replacing it with an ersatz version, while letting a private developer ruin Repulse Bay beach.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator