Former kuk boss stood up for NT native sons

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am

During the disturbances of 1967, the government was desperate for public support. Chan Yat-sen, former chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk, helped deliver the backing of rural clansmen. Leftists branded him an anti-China traitor and he was given a licence to carry a revolver for protection.

In 1968, he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire and regained the chairmanship of the kuk.

Times had changed.

Even though he stepped down from active politics in 1978, he kept a close eye on current affairs.

He was concerned with securing the rights and privileges of indigenous villagers after Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty. He served on consultation committees for the Basic Law and became a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Chan adapted with the times, but throughout his life the thrust of his concern was safeguarding the welfare of the New Territories' native sons. Not for nothing was he dubbed the King of the New Territories.

Chan died in St Teresa's Hospital on July 27, aged 90.

His life story was the classic tale of the peasant boy who rose from rice to riches.

Born in 1917 in the small village of So Kwun Wat near Tuen Mun, his father ran medicine shops and a restaurant while his mother looked after the family fields.

In 1940, he worked for government as a food investigator for Tuen Mun and outlying islands. This job was part of an effort to gauge food supplies in the event of a Japanese invasion.

The invasion came and, like a million other Hongkongers, Chan spent most of the war years in the mainland.

After the communist victory in the civil war, the authorities in Taiwan were anxious to influence rising leaders in Hong Kong. Chan went to Taiwan in 1952 and reportedly studied politics. He had close links with Kuomintang figures in Hong Kong.

He entered local politics and in 1954 became chairman of the Tuen Mun Rural Committee.

By 1962, he had so entrenched his power base that he was elected chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk. He stepped down as chairman in 1964 but in 1968 once again won the powerful post, which by then had gained the ear and confidence of the government.

It was a position he held until 1978 when he declared he was standing down from politics.

That was easier announced than done. When he felt strongly about an issue - which was frequently - he would buy space in Chinese-language newspapers to air his views. The last of these announcements was published last month.

When he felt the interests of indigenous New Territories residents was threatened, he was always active. In 1991, there were worries about stability over the handover period.

Although he was then aged 74, he was elected chairman of the newly formed Federation for the Stability of Hong Kong.

As chairman of the kuk, Chan took an interest in a talented young man from the Tuen Mun area who showed an aptitude for politics, and Lau Wong-fat was elected chairman of the kuk in 1980 and retains that post.

'Mr Chan was always very good to me,' Mr Lau said yesterday.

'I learned a lot from him when I was young. He stood up for the New Territories and the rights of the local people. He was very outspoken. He was never afraid to say what he felt without fear. He was not afraid of the government and did not care how they regarded him.'

That view was echoed by So Kwun Wat village representative Chan Kwok-wah, a former neighbour of Chan Yat-sen. 'He had the power and guts to fight for the good and for benefits of villagers and residents in Tuen Mun,' he said. 'He confronted the government. Nobody else can compare to him.'

Chan Yat-sen was a canny businessman and investor as well as an astute politician. He lived in a mansion in Kowloon Tong and was driven from there to the Kowloon Tong Club in a Rolls-Royce. Until recently, he played mahjong several times a week.

He owned at least six other properties in Kowloon Tong valued at more than HK$700 million, the Chinese-language press reported.