When ballots are counted after the April elections, demographers and political witch doctors will be able to fully gauge the impact of the changing population face of the New Territories. In the old days, entrenched elders from the five mighty clans that ruled the rural areas were automatic winners of any polls. No more. Today, the native sons are vastly outnumbered by newcomers. Politics in the New Territories used to be a cosy affair, well-suited to the tranquil rustic backwaters that were the centres of village life. In some hamlets the Village Committee buildings were not only the most dominant architectural structures, save only the clan temple, but were the focal point of communal life. Those Village Committee buildings that remain often stand unused, their role and need bypassed by the rush towards tomorrow. No longer do they truly represent the local community, most of whom are not blessed with the status of 'indigenous villagers'. It is impossible to get any definitive calculation of just how many of these elusive native sons remain in the New Territories. Ask rural strongman Lau Wong-fat or the once-mighty Heung Yee Kuk, the native sons' organisation that he heads, and answers understandably tend toward the higher estimates. They say, without any trace of a shameful grin, that there are 700,000 'indigenous persons' living in Hong Kong with a further 200,000 stalwarts overseas who can trace ancestry back to the villages. These figures are highly debatable. I reckon, along with others who have guessed at the figures, that the genuine 'indigenous inhabitants' may total about half the Kuk's over-generous assessment. It is natural that politicians and power brokers in the New Territories tend to look on the high side of statistics. The greater the following they have, the more notice central government pays to their exhortations, demands and requirements for special treatment. The larger their mandate, the more power they swing. Statistics do not back them up. According to census figures, in 1911 there were 86,987 New Territories residents, including Tanka living on fishing boats. Virtually all, with the exception of troops, district officers, civil servants and crews building the Kowloon-Canton Railway, were native sons. By 1931, the population remained virtually the same. In 1966, that had shot up to 581,920, largely because of the exodus of textile workers into Tsuen Wan, where the great Shanghainese factory owners set up shop after 1949. As recently as 1986, the New Territories had only 1.9 million inhabitants. Today, that has been boosted by another million permanent residents. So I reckon of the three million people living beyond Lion Rock and on the islands today, about 15 per cent, or around 450,000 could at best be genuine descendants of those who lived in the area when the Union Jack went up the flagpole at Tai Po. There is a lot of dreamy folk memory among older New Territories residents, going back to a mystical, imaginary era in the grand and glorious days before June 30, 1898. That was when the new lease came into effect ceding the lands to the British. In the food stalls and watering holes of the New Territories, it is total and undisputed fact that before that date, life was idyllic and prosperous, without flaw or imperfection. There was no drought or flood, women could not own land and villages existed in total harmony and freedom (forgetting any unwelcome facts such as the tyrannical foreign rule by the Qing dictatorship). Life was perfect. Then the lease was signed and another bunch of foreigners appeared. To ease their hijack of the hinterland up to the borders of the Shenzhen River, the wily Brits promised the inhabitants that their rights and privileges would be preserved. This did not matter a hoot, of course, when places like Yuen Long, Sha Tin and Tai Po were remote fishing hamlets or tiny market towns. As long as people did not attack colonial outposts or indulge in piracy, the Hong Kong authorities happily left them to follow their traditional ways. When huge new cities blossomed from the paddy fields in the 1970s, however, and impoverished spinach growers suddenly became land-rich multi-millionaires, those old promises were dusted off with swift vigour. The sons of the simple villagers, who were now lawyers, accountants, businessmen, doctors and real estate developers, wanted their rights. But the original inhabitants and their descendants, the so-called indigenous villagers, were by then losing the population battle to the tide of outsiders occupying the rising public housing estates of Tuen Mun, Tsuen Wan and Sha Tin. In the old days, government servants chatted over endless cups of tea with the venerable elders who made up the village committees. But with the advent of the District Boards, largely representing the newcomers in the New Towns, the power structure changed. It was an alarming adaption and a change that came with shocking swiftness to many villagers. Reality may strike home on election day in May, when voters in the massive new towns from Sheung Shui to Tseung Kwan O will hold the overwhelming balance of ballot power.