The rural powerbrokers of the Heung Yee Kuk are seeking to strengthen their bargaining power by setting up an archive and developing research capability after a series of clashes with the government over policy.
Kuk adviser Kingsley Sit Ho-yin has been given the task of setting up the archive, which he hopes can be developed into a research arm for the kuk and help change the 88-year-old group’s image with an often-critical public.
The idea grew out of a row with the government over the incorporation of some villages into surrounding country parks; most notably the Tai Long Sai Wan enclave in Sai Kung. A search of the kuk’s records showed that the former British colonial government had pledged in 1979 to keep country park boundaries at least 300 yards (274 metres) from those of villages.
Struck by the difficulty of digging out old documents when needed, the kuk decided after the row in December to systemise its records and establish a collection
Country park zoning and the small house policy, under which male indigenous New Territories villagers are allowed discount land to build a home, are two areas the kuk wants to work on. It hopes the archive can provide evidence to supports its case in future talks with the government.
The kuk has often been painted as out of touch and interested only in defending the privileges the colonial government gave to those who could trace their roots to the New Territories before they were leased to Britain in 1898.
“Unlike the country folks in the past, nowadays’ New Territories people are rational, fair and reasonable and are open to listening to different views,” Sit said.
He hopes work on the archive can start this month.
The kuk has been at odds with the government on issues including an administration crackdown on unauthorised structures and the incorporation of enclaves into country parks, which villagers have claimed infringes on their property rights.
Some members advocate creating a political party from the kuk, created in 1926 to fight for rural rights and established as a statutory body in 1959.
The kuk is missing some records and may seek declassified colonial documents from the British National Archives, Sit said. Besides its own history, the kuk could also carry out comparative studies, for example by looking at Taiwan’s policy towards indigenous groups, to support its policy advocacy. The archives would be for the kuk’s internal use only.
Lingnan University historian Dr Lau Chi-pang, who has researched the history of the New Territories, said the archives could offer a rich source of material for anyone studying the area.
“No institution is in a better position than the Heung Yee Kuk to establish such a collection, because all along the kuk has been the body to deal with government officials on behalf of rural villagers,” he said. “The biggest issue is whether it will be open for the public to access the information.”
While the government’s record officer had kept some memos and correspondence with the kuk, as well as old maps of the New Territories, its record was far from complete, the scholar said.
It was particularly difficult to trace documents offering information about smaller villagers, and researching them often meant relying on oral recollections.
Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said producing research and talking to the government in bureaucratic language would be a more civilised way to negotiate, but would not be enough for the often outspoken kuk to win mainstream recognition from the public.
“If its wants support from the wider society, then it cannot just talk about small-circle interests,” he said.