THERE may not be many buildings to see at the moment, but the construction of Hong Kong's new airport at Chek Lap Kok - the world's largest airport built on mostly reclaimed land - is in full swing. Around the clock, massive rocks are being crushed and the reclaimed ground consolidated to pave the way for the airport's opening in less than three years' time. People living some 350 metres away from the site in Tung Chung follow the progress with awe. 'You can hear engines running 24 hours a day,' says Wong Wo, whose home is separated from the mammoth project by a strip of water. 'I have yet to get used to the endless noise.' Mr Wong, a strong opponent of the airport since construction started at the end of 1992, has finally bowed to the inevitable and accepted it will soon be up and running. 'I guess it is good for Hong Kong in a long run,' says the 41-year-old plumber and electrician as he gazes at the gigantic site - engulfed in thick winter haze and construction smog across the water. 'It is too late to say no to it now.' With the Airport Authority (AA) replacing the five-year-old Provisional Airport Authority (PAA) last week, this multi-billion-dollar project continues its inexorable progress. Scheduled to open in April 1998, the 1,248-hectare airport will be three times the size of the overcrowded Kai Tak in Kowloon City and is expected to handle 35 million passengers and three million tonnes of cargo a year. The number of passengers is predicted to increase to 42 million by 2003. The price tag that comes with this vision is astronomical. The cost of the airport site stands at $70.7 billion. But for those living in Ma Wan Chung, an old, sleepy costal village closest to the airport site, the price of the airport is far too high - and they are not talking about money. 'There were 15 small villages in Tung Chung and they used to be self-sufficient,' recalls Cheung Kwok-kwong, a Ma Wan Chung resident and the village representative. 'There were fish to catch, ample land for vegetation, and livestock to raise. 'Villagers just got on with their quiet and leisurely lives. Sometimes we had tourists visiting and they also brought in business to us.' Then came the airport. Mr Cheung, a 39-year-old Ma Wan Chung native and restaurant owner, says that since construction work began three years ago, the area has been ruined. Two villages have already been torn down to make way for the giant Tung Chung development and other airport-related building projects. 'The fish vanished with the entire Chek Lap Kok Island. Land for vegetation is now being used for the new Tung Chung development. 'With this development came government control over our livestock farming practices,' he says. 'We used to have several pig farms, but they have been shut down because of the pollution. What pollution? We have been farming here for decades and our farming practices worked well.' Mr Cheung says that instead of having tourists visiting his restaurant, his business is now frequented by imported workers from the mainland. 'To be fair, we have not had any problems with the mainland Chinese yet. 'But I used to serve seafood, now I'm cooking a lot of fast food. My business is no longer as upmarket as it was.' He says that because of the changes, the younger generation has moved to the city for work, leaving behind their less educated parents and grandparents. Mr Wong, whose own business as an electrician and plumber has suffered because of the uncertain climate created by the airport, says he is practically unemployed. 'Villagers are not sure when they will be evicted so they are not bothered with home repairs. 'Now the elderly just sit around waiting to die while people like me are just idling because there is no work to do.' Across the waterway from where Mr Wong leisurely sips his tea roars the giant piling engines that have just sprung to life. Lunch hour is over and work has already begun in earnest. Trucks are moving on the dusty road and construction workers are busy hammering away. There are now between 6,500 and 7,000 workers involved in the project. About 2,000 live on site while others commute by boat from either Tuen Mun or Wan Chai. This number is set to increase when construction reaches its peak next year. The airport site is uninteresting to look at, but its scale is impressive. The airport platform is more than five kilometres long, which is about the length of the Kowloon peninsula. The passenger terminal complex covers an area of 490,000 square metres and would take one man 13 million days to build. Without a plan in your hands it is hard to visualise this giant project. To further confuse visitors, the site is scattered with temporary buildings, roads and bridges which will be torn down once the airport is completed. What is clear is that great progress has already been made. The airport platform is complete, the terminal building is taking shape - as well as the control tower. Felix Li Sik-to, construction superintendent for the airfield, says work on the taxiways has already begun. 'An impact roller was brought over from South Africa to consolidate the ground. This is a 24-hour operation with workers coming in at two shifts everyday,' he says. 'Another round-the-clock operation is rock crushing. This facility supplies aggregates for other works on the island like the paving of the sub-basement [for the taxiways and terminal aprons].' The airport will have one 3,800-metre long runway, three parallel taxiways, three crossway taxiways and six high-speed runway exits. The passenger terminal will have 65 gates. But the airport will not all be bare concrete. Trials are underway to find the most suitable type of grass for the site. It will be used to discourage birds from landing and feeding near the runway. Other Airport Core Programme (ACP) projects include Tung Chung New Town, the West Kowloon Reclamation, Central Reclamation, the North Lantau Expressway, Lantau Fixed Crossing (Tsing Ma Bridge and Kap Shui Mun Bridge), Route 3, West Kowloon Expressway, Western Harbour Crossing and the airport railway. The ACP has a budget of $158.2 billion and the contract for the construction of the passenger terminal building inside the airport, worth $10.1 billion, is the largest to be awarded in the entire programme. About two thirds of the cost of this airport project comes from the public purse. Controversy is inevitable in a project of this size. Since construction began, the project has withstood rows between the mainland and British governments over finance and has also become embroiled in other issues such as the Governor's reform package. Clinton Leeks, the corporate development director for AA, says the airport is now on target to meet its opening date, despite the delays caused by political issues. He says the government's completion target of the middle of 1997 has always been its goal, but is not a deadline. Rather, it is 'an objective to do as much as possible'. 'In the absence of full agreement with China on financing, that is exactly what the government and the PAA continued to do,' Mr Leeks says. 'We now have a series, over the last year, of very welcome agreements which have removed really almost all the uncertainties and enable us to move full steam ahead.' The Airport Core Programme also met with strong opposition from environmental groups. They condemned its destructive effect on the landscape and wildlife - notably on the population of rare humpbacked or 'pink' dolphins. Since then, the AA has commissioned a specialist to oversee a dolphin monitoring programme to minimise the 'potential impacts' on the mammals. The ACP has also had its share of labour disputes with some groups of workers going on strike. Complaints have varied from not getting paid, short payment of overtime allowances, and the amount deducted from pay for food and accommodation. Three disputes have been settled and one is still under investigation, according to the AA, now chaired by the pro-China businessman Wong Po-yan. As well as complaints that workers are being paid too little, there have been accusations that senior officials have been paid too much. In July, legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip highlighted that when compared with other airport bodies around the world, officials' salaries were as much as 300 per cent higher in Hong Kong. He referred in particular to the near $5 million thought to have been paid to chief executive officer Dr Henry Townsend. The government insisted pay levels for top airport officials were in line with commercial rates in the territory. But it conceded the authority was not a private corporation and its directors' pay was largely covered by taxpayers. Mr Leeks says the AA has a sound system, which ensures airport funds are carefully monitored and properly spent. He adds that the AA also reports regularly to the Legislative Council. 'We are a very monitored project in terms of our financial performance. 'We are now borrowing from the banks, so they will be looking very closely at our financial performance to ensure that we manage the money properly,' he says. Mr Leeks says they have yet to finalise how they will mark the opening of the airport in 1998. 'At the moment we are focusing our energy on actually getting to opening date rather that what we do at opening. 'But let's put this in context, on that day, the sky over Kowloon will fall silent. 'Some 350,000 people will no longer have to try to go to sleep with the sound of an aeroplane. 'Hong Kong will resume its ability to cope with all the demands put upon it as a major international centre of aviation. 'We know that we need to meet Hong Kong's needs by bringing in this airport on time and within budget. 'That is our objective and we have a lot to do now. But we are confident.'