Mr Wong, a sprightly 70-year-old, sits outside his house on a narrow lane which winds through his village in Yuen Long. While his wife and daughter play happily with his grandchildren inside the house, he matter-of-factly explains why he will leave his renovated ancestral home. The planned move is not the result of a family dispute. Mr Wong is packing his bags because of the cramped living conditions of Shui Bin village, where old and new houses stand centimetres apart. Mr Wong grew up in his tiny village house with a floor area of less than 400 square feet. Now he lives there with his wife, his son and his family of three. Now, as before, his home has no toilet facilities. 'It's not comfortable living here,' says the old man. 'Most buildings are so narrow, just as they were hundreds of years ago.' At times, a pungent smell from sewage pipes pervades the area. Mr Wong's dream house is also small. It would be situated on the outskirts of the village which he has been well acquainted with for most of his life. But like many other New Territories indigenous residents he cannot be sure he will live in it before he dies. Even though under a government policy he, like other males in his village, is entitled to it. His son submitted an application a few years back. The Small House Policy introduced in 1972 confers the right to each male indigenous New Territories villager to build a three-storey house, with a maximum floor area of 700 square feet. Before 1972, villagers who wanted to build extra houses on their land needed to apply for free-building licences from the Government. The new policy overcame rapid unplanned expansion by providing the opportunity for all indigenous residents to build a small house once in their lifetime in either their own village or an approved area. Those without private land were allowed to apply for an allocation of Crown land from the Government. The policy came into effect following many rounds of talks between village representatives and the Government. At the time it was greeted with applause by the New Territories population. Few expected it to draw so many complaints so soon after implementation. The gripes poured in over the long delay in approving each application. It is still common for villagers, particularly those in heavily populated areas, to wait up to five years before their request is granted. Lately, discontent over the effects of what is now regarded as a flawed policy has reached a new high. One vocal critic is legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai, who is angry with its exclusion of women. Her Sex and Disability Discrimination (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, introduced to the council last year, calls for a repeal of the policy's exemption from existing anti-discrimination legislation, among other proposals. Local and overseas women's groups have backed her call. During a recent visit to the territory, president of the London-based International Federation of Business and Professional Women, Sylvia Perry, said the policy 'implies that women there do not have independence, nor can they enjoy freedom of choice'. Ms Loh maintains her purpose is to end discrimination. She will leave it to the Government to decide whether to retain or scrap the policy even if her bill is passed in June, when Legco will make its vote. But the debate over the Small House Policy involves more than discrimination. It is being attacked on various fronts since the Planning, Environment and Lands Branch launched a review almost two years ago. Apart from its clear bias towards males, concern has been raised by some legislators over the diminishing supply of land for new small houses. Another area of concern is the villagers' profitable practice of selling their birth right to non-indigenous residents. 'The original idea of the policy was to help villagers meet their needs for housing, but it has resulted in speculation,' says legislator Wong Wai-yin, who represents the northwestern New Territories. He suspects more than 20 per cent of the existing 20,000 small houses are owned by non-indigenous residents. Others opposed to the policy claim it is discriminatory as it gives indigenous villagers the exclusive right to build their own homes while tens of thousands of residents in urban areas are forced to stay in temporary housing or flats shared with different households, with no access to land. Principal Assistant Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands Esmond Lee Chung-sin appears unperturbed by the opposition to the policy. 'There is no evidence suggesting serious speculation in small houses,' he said. 'It is not against the original spirit of the policy to allow the houses to be sold. It is the same as allowing Home Ownership Scheme flats to be sold.' But he concedes there is a manpower shortage for the processing of applications. Mr Lee also agrees that a study of future land supply is urgently required. There are 13,300 applicants whose requests for a small house are yet to be granted. Most, like Mr Wong, believe that building a small house is their inherent right, one they should be entitled to regardless of their actual needs. One common argument in favour of supporting the right is that New Territories villagers made longstanding contributions to the economy and mounted brave resistance against the invading British in 1898, then the Japanese before and during the occupation. But in this age of egalitarianism, some also admit it is time for a change. 'You cannot have a situation in which some people have special rights over others forever,' said a long-term resident of Tin Shui Wai. Tang Kwan-chi, a 60-year-old native of Yuen Long, believes village life would suffer a serious blow if building rights were curtailed, as people would be discouraged from living near their clansmen. The retired civil servant is a member of the powerful Tang clan in Yuen Long and head of Tong Fong village just across the street from the Ping Shan Heritage Trail. Since 1980, he has been pushing for sufficient land for his villagers to build their homes, albeit to little avail. While driving through parts of Yuen Long, he pointed to different sites, including one being turned into a luxury residential complex on land once owned by indigenous villagers. 'The Government has taken the land away over the past decades in the name of urban development, and only paid meagre sums in return,' he said. 'Years later we found out that the land that used to belong to our ancestors was sold to developers.' That is as annoying to him as the resulting shortage of Crown land for small house applicants. Most of the small houses today are built on land owned by villagers themselves. 'Some of our villagers have been forced to live elsewhere because of inadequate space at their homes,' Mr Tang says. He cites the case of So Kai-nang, 40, an indigenous resident who has not been able to benefit from the policy although he applied for a small house more than a decade ago. Now he shares a 300 sq ft flat in Long Ping Estate with his parents, wife and son, and four other family members. Members of his family scattered to different places after their village house was destroyed by fire. Says Mr So, a former labourer now unemployed: 'I don't want to rent a separate flat for my wife and children. That would be a heavy financial burden.' As his ancestors never possessed any land, Mr So can only rely on the Government to provide him with a place to build his own home. But it appears to be a distant dream for him. 'All along I thought I would have one,' he sighs. Frustrating cases like Mr So's as well as the Government's inaction towards the booming speculation activities have infuriated Mr Tang, a persistent campaigner for indigenous residents' rights. 'It is important for one to own properties in Hong Kong, and it is too expensive now for people to buy one,' says Mr Tang, who also strongly objects to people selling their small houses for profit. The Heung Yee Kuk is another staunch supporter of the policy. At a Legco Bills Committee meeting discussing Ms Loh's bill, its chairman Lau Wong-fat said: 'This is not a rights issue. This is only an arrangement to help the rural population.' Preserving the small house policy is of great importance to village elders who are concerned about a threat to their traditional rights in the future. Even today, they remain largely dissatisfied with the Government's 1994 decision to overturn their ancient tradition of giving land succession rights to only sons and not daughters. Villagers tend to think women should be excluded from the rights as they would benefit from their husbands' anyway once they are married. Given the little time left before the change of sovereignty, a government decision on the thorny issue is likely to be made after the handover. It is not impossible that time will bring forth a discontinuation of the home-building rights. While article 40 of the Basic Law guarantees protection of lawful traditional rights and interests of New Territories indigenous villagers, officials from the Planning, Environment and Lands Branch say it does not necessarily mean future changes to the small house policy would result in a breach of the Basic Law. 'Our policy does not confer legal rights,' says one official. 'In the absence of legal precedence, it cannot be said for certain what would constitute 'lawful traditional rights and interests'.' Meanwhile, outside his own sprawling ancestral home in Tong Fong village, Mr Tang stands proud: 'I want to leave something to my sons. It's important for one to know one's roots.'