It's our right, say New Territories leaders fighting to keep small-house policy

Unflattering portrayals of New Territories leaders in the film Overheard 3 has not deflected powerbrokers Leung Fuk-yuen and Hau Chi-keung from a mission to retainthe controversial small-house policy, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 12:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 12:38am

Leung Fuk-yuen, chief of Tai Tong village in Yuen Long, hadn't been to the cinema in 10 years, but local thriller Overheard 3 was a film he had to see.

That's because he's practically in the movie - the plot is built around struggles over access to rural land between male descendants of indigenous residents (so-called ding), tenants, and property developers. And the film doesn't shy from the fact it's loosely based on real events, with several characters resembling New Territories strongmen such as Leung and his pal Hau Chi-keung.

City people are jealous of New Territories people’s wealth but they ignore the hard work behind it

The portrayals aren't flattering. Rural powerbrokers are depicted as operating like thugs and colluding with property companies.

Sporting a similar bouffantto Leung's, actor Dominic Lam Ka-Wah plays a character who is involved in fights, prostitution and drug trafficking. Leung had to see for himself and, not surprisingly, took exception to it.

"It's sensational fabrication to boost ticket sales," he says. "I don't smoke, drink or gamble."

Hau, who chairs the Sheung Shui Rural Committee, feels much the same way about a character played by award-winning actor Lau Ching-wan.

Despite their complaints, the two men aren't too upset.

"It's fictional and they didn't use my name. So it's OK," Hau says, though he believes the blanket wiretaps the movie depicts are real enough.

Flamboyant and given to provocative comments, the pair, both in their 50s, are used to being in the news - even without the hoopla surrounding the film.

Amid roiling public anger over unaffordable housing, Hau regularly dismisses middle-aged professionals who have yet to own property as "useless basketcases".

Hau is a vociferous supporter of the government's controversial plans to establish a new town in northeast New Territories. His clan owns 93 hectares of land in Kwu Tung North, and would receive more than HK$5 billion in compensation for development. Hau dismisses farmers who refuse to vacate the land as unscrupulous squatters.

When indigenous villagers went abroad to make a living, they rented out the land to farmers for small sums that they often didn't bother to collect. Now after a few decades, the tenants' grandchildren are trying to take possession by suing for occupancy.

Describing their aim to revitalise agriculture as lies, Hau declares it's a bid to seek better compensation, repeatedly saying that even the Hau clan's ancestral hall could be sold for the right price.

His clan are big landowners because his grandfather was "a big mandarin with money", Hau says. "I enjoy the benefits he left behind to the fullest."

But he insists he is a self-made man and his wealth, including a Bentley and nine other cars, is hard-earned.

His father was a sailor, and his mother farmed. The eldest of seven siblings, Hau got a job as a dockworker when he was just 13.

"It was hard and dangerous work, but I have the can-do spirit."

Hau says he travelled around Britain, the Netherlands and the US for 10 years to expand his horizons. By the time he was 20 years old, he had opened a Chinese diner in Chicago and later made his pile buying and selling restaurants.

"I did hundreds of kinds of work. I use my brain. I engage in whatever work that is lucrative, though nothing illegal."

He returned to Hong Kong in the 1980s and started a business exporting goldfish and bloodworms which, he says, brought HK$1 million profit per month; soon he ventured into property.

"I am a role model young people should learn from. Go get a bucket of gold and multiply it. I had nothing when I was 13 and was paid HK$270 per month. Today I can easily buy a house worth HK$270 million," Hau says.

Leung also tells a similar rags-to-riches story. His parents were farmers and as the youngest of eight children, he was often pampered.

"But seeing [my parents] toil, I worked hard. I have fended for myself since I was a child, selling scrap metal and making plastic flowers to help support the family. I worked at Fairwood as a manager for several years.

"I, my father and several of my brothers borrowed money to build three houses. We lived in two and sold the third to pay off the construction costs. We paid land premium for the sale."

Leung went on to open a restaurant in Tsuen Wan, and later became a contractor, doing drainage and infrastructure work across the New Territories. He became Tai Tong village chief in 1991 and a Yuen Long district councillor in 1994, and has held both posts since.

"I know a lot about rural issues," he says. "I worked for 10 years to solve flooding problems in Yuen Long south. City people are jealous of New Territories people's [wealth and success] but they ignore the hard work behind it."

But in their rise as rural chieftains, both Leung and Hau had run-ins with the law. The plot of Overheard 3 draws on some of the incidents, including an elderly women forced off her land by hooligans and greedy rural powerbrokers.

In 2012, an elderly woman filed a suit accusing Hau of dumping soil onto her fields after failing to acquire the land. But Hau says the woman, who failed in her attempt, was merely acting out of spite after her sons lost to him in elections for village chief.

"The land didn't belong to her. The owner just wanted it back and sought my help to reclaim it," he says.

Meanwhile, Leung made headlines after an Audit Commission report revealed that his recreation company, Tai Tong Lychee Valley Park, had illegally occupied part of Tai Lam Country Park, for nearly 20 years. It operated a restaurant, as well as facilities for war games and horse riding on a 1.2 hectare site, almost half of which was government land. Leung and co-owners were convicted of illegal land use and ordered to clear out, but employees and supporters blocked efforts to remove the structures. A hundred police officers were sent in while workers completed the removal.

Leung blamed his fame for the scandal.

Like other Heung Yee Kuk members, the two men fiercely attack calls for the government to end its small-house policy, which allows male descendents of indigenous residents to apply to build a village house of up to three-storeys, on a site of no more than 700 sq ft, without paying a premium for conversion of land use.

Hau says the building restrictions are a form of suppression, and urges the government to allow buildings of up to nine storeys to alleviate land shortage for male heirs.

The policy was introduced in 1972 to help poor indigenous villagers meet their housing needs and continue living in ancestral villages. While it doesn't specify the source of land, residents can only build in areas designated as village-type development zones, or V-zones.

In the past 40 years, however, most of the land owned by indigenous residents within V-zones has been developed, either by villagers or by property companies that bought up land from individuals and clans. So descendants now seek to build on government land located within V-zones.

"Indigenous residents argue the government promised that they can build on public land as long as they have a son. The problem is the policy doesn't specify where the land would come from," says Edward Yiu Chung-yim, an associate professor in resource management at Chinese University, who has studied land use in the New Territories.

"The small-house scheme is unsustainable as all the public land would be used up. Since this is a policy, the government should be able to change it. It is still in effect because any change would run into strong opposition from the big vested interests in the New Territories."

And as there is no means test for small house applicants, unlike those for the Home Ownership Scheme, many Hongkongers regard this as an unjust scheme, Yiu says.

However, Leung defends the small-house policy as an "innate right" designed to protect indigenous residents, in the same way that Australia protects the Aborigines' way of life.

He blames the government and developers for many of the conflicts in the New Territories. In the past, property firms convinced villagers to sell their land cheaply on the assumption that development would be restricted. Yet, although plots initially were designated for conservation, the zoning was changed after the land was sold and developers were able to build high-rises, Leung says.

"Is there collusion between officials and developers? You have to think for yourself as I don't want to antagonise people."

Leung and Hau know they have considerable clout in Hong Kong's political matrix and are ready to use it.

"Our roots can be traced back to over 1,000 years. When sovereignty returned to China, the Heung Yee Kuk, which oversees 600 villages and 1,500 village chiefs, was the first group to voice support for the handover," Leung says.

"We are an important force in stabilising Hong Kong."

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