In 1947, with a donation from the Lord Mayor of London's Air Raid Distress Fund, the Hong Kong Social Welfare Council set up a housing development subcommittee, which was to become the Hong Kong Housing Society, a charitable organisation dedicated to meeting the territory's housing needs.
But the society is no ordinary private club. Its members have always included prominent figures, including senior officials. It has also operated as a quasi-government department, getting land at discounted prices and low-interest loans from the Government for the construction of various types of housing, including rental units for low-income earners and flats for sale to the so-called sandwich class.
After half a century of providing homes for the needy of Hong Kong, it appears that the society has acquired too much of a taste for the property industry. Apparently concerned that it has outlived its mission, it wants to re-invent itself as a developer on the mainland. The idea is to provide housing for Hong Kong citizens who go across the border to retire, or as commuters. Chairman Chung Shui-ming claims the society is already a developer of sorts, and hopes to team up with private developers in Guangdong to get the experience it lacks.
As a private body whose members can rewrite its constitution and mission at will, the society can do anything it wants. There is only one hitch: it appears it may have to amend its incorporation ordinance to be able to operate outside of Hong Kong, and a smooth passage is not yet a foregone conclusion.
Legislators asked to approve an amendment to extend the society's jurisdiction will be entitled to ask if the money it has accumulated over half a century has come from taxpayers, albeit indirectly, and whether it should be spent outside Hong Kong, when the territory still has housing needs. Street-sleepers are organising themselves into a pressure group to seek housing and more flats are needed for the elderly.
It is one thing to help Hong Kong people acquire decent shelter at home; helping them to buy a second home or encouraging them to reside across the border is another. It is also doubtful whether building retirement homes for SAR citizens there is a good idea, because the mainland's health and medical services remain unsatisfactory.
Though a private body, the society owes the public a better explanation as to why it seeks to broaden its current mission.