A dozen Wan Chai residents descended on the Legislative Council building on November 23. They were there at the invitation of the Legco planning, lands and works panel to voice their anger over the Urban Renewal Authority's redevelopment programme, which will deprive them of homes they have known since they were born. Wan Chai is not the only district which faces changes under the authority's redevelopment plans. And this was not the first group of affected residents to express their grievances to the city's most influential politicians. But thanks to a position paper titled 'Regenerating Wan Chai', which backs residents' cases with comprehensive research, they have a stronger voice in their fight against the authority's redevelopment plan than their counterparts in other districts. It is the first policy paper produced by a district council, and it shatters the perception that district councils only handle complaints, organise variety shows, sightseeing tours to the New Territories and banquets. It is proof that the city's grassroots political institution can play a larger and more active role on social issues if it is determined to do so. The position paper is based on research by the University of Hong Kong and opinions expressed in July at a public hearing held at Lee Tung Street - commonly known as Wedding Card Street. At the meeting, Wan Chai district council chairwoman Ada Wong Ying-kay read out key principles of the paper - tenets such as renewal do not necessarily mean demolition; respect for those affected; and the community's full engagement in such decisions. Arguments supported by scientific research correct the easily formed perception that opposition to redevelopment is merely out of greed - to receive more compensation. For Ms Wong, who masterminded the idea of producing a position paper, it was just the beginning of modernising the district council within the city's two-tier political system so that government could no longer ignore it. The non-affiliated politician, who is also a solicitor, was elected chairwoman of the Wan Chai district council after being unanimously re-elected to the council. It is her second term with the body. After dealing with the government at the district level for five years, the solicitor has come to a conclusion. 'The government sees the district council as a machine that helps pacify the people,' she said. 'It likes seeing us organising variety shows and opening ceremonies. The audiences are professional participants - always the same group of people showing up for the activities. By singing and dancing, we cover up unpleasant things for the government.' In her eyes, these 'anti-intellectual activities' reinforce the institution's incompetent image in the minds of many people, including that of the government. 'The government said we are a consultative body,' she said. 'But the consultations are fake and superficial. It doesn't matter that the council agrees or not on something, they still go ahead with their plan. For example, we opposed the Wan Chai reclamation, but it was ignored. Hence, there aren't too many policy discussions at the district councils.' Ms Wong said genuine engagement meant the authority should invite council members to take part in projects such as urban renewal, rather than merely inform the council of its plans. She believes it is the district councils that should engage the public and promote their participation. 'We are at the front-line,' she said. 'No one knows our district and the people better than us. We can be a very effective platform to let the government meet the people and know what they want.' To realise her ideals on the district councils, Ms Wong and her colleagues have organised three public forums in the past six months on development projects that will immensely change Wan Chai's landscape. They are the city's first community meetings on planning issues. The first one was on the future of Wedding Card Street as it faces redevelopment. Affected residents and merchants, curious passers-by and prominent activists flocked to the street, despite the summer heat. The other two forums were on Hopewell Holdings' plan to build two mega-hotel towers on Kennedy Road. Hopewell chairman Sir Gordon Wu Ying-sheung and his executives were given a platform to lobby for support. But they also needed to address public concerns. Government officials and environmental experts were also bought in to provide a full picture. One was at a secondary school on Kennedy Road at the end of October. Most of the attendants were people directly affected by the development. A few days later, another forum was held at the Hopewell Centre and in the grounds of Wu Chung House. Many of the attendants were those living on the other side of Queen's Road East. They were less hostile to the development. As the hotel project still awaits Town Planning Board approval, the council summarised opinions it gathered at the two forums for the board's reference. 'A local council is actually well positioned to have dialogue with all the stakeholders. It is just a matter of whether we use this advantage and contribute to productive policy discussions,' Ms Wong said. She said the biggest obstacle with reforming the local council was the mindset of administrative staff. While Legco has a secretariat to do the writing work for them, the unprecedented position paper was a collective effort by the councillors. 'I understand it can be tough for the district officers,' she said. 'Their training, skills and mandate are on organising performances and opening ceremonies. They think our attempts are too risky and ambitious.' Ms Wong was a member of the now defunct urban council between 1995 and 1999. Her philosophy on the district council's role is partly inspired by her five-year urban council experience. The urban council was not a talk-shop. It had real power to wield over Hong Kong's leisure and cultural facilities, with its own income derived from rates charges. She stood for district council election in 2000 after the government dissolved the urban council on the grounds that a three-tier political system was ineffective and too complicated for Hong Kong. It was something of a shock to find that, as a district councillor, things were done differently. 'We had heated debates in the urban council, but people in the district council tend to speak softly and politely,' she said. Ms Wong became chairwoman after elections on November 21, in which the pro-democracy camp scored a massive victory over the pro-government camp. But it would be imprecise to place the non-affiliated politician in the pro-democracy camp. Coming from a rich and prominent legal family, her father is well-known solicitor Philip Wong Kin-hang. Her younger brother, Kennedy Wong Ying-ho, is a founding member of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Legal Forum and also a local delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. 'The pro-democracy camp doesn't see me as one of them because of my family background. But for the business community, I'm too liberal,' she said. 'I don't want to label myself. I believe in democratic values, pluralism and tolerance. I am an advocate of public participation. I'm moderate and solution-oriented. I see the world with passionate eyes. You might call me centre-left.' She was a founding member of the Liberal Party back in 1993. She left the party after one year and rejoined in 1998. In 2000, she left again. She said it was meaningless to stay with the Liberal Party after two of her friends, Allen Lee Peng-fei and Ronald Arculli, quit and the party became a right-wing pro-business group. 'The Liberal Party is becoming more and more conservative, while I'm getting more and more liberal. I'm more liberal than when I started in politics a decade ago. It is the direct contact with the people, understanding their problems and pain that has changed me.' She said the political camp she could belong to had not yet appeared. 'I know we will have that camp when our society becomes more mature in politics,' she added.