Upclose with Paul Zimmerman
Paul Zimmerman is Hong Kong’s newest District Councilor, representing Pok Fu Lam district as a member of the Civic Party. Also the convener of Designing Hong Kong and a long-time harbor activist, he talks with Zach Hines about city planning, activism, and the heated election contest that put him on the council.
I was born in Holland—Rotterdam—the other big harbor of the world.
My first experience with activism was setting up a student union in high school. I was on the editorial board of the underground newspaper. We held a demonstration when I was 17 to close down the school and get rid of the headmaster.
I didn’t want to go into military service, and the way to do that was to leave the NATO zone. So in ’84 I signed up for a three-month traineeship at a Dutch bank in Hong Kong.
I started my business in ’87, and when you’re an entrepreneur you keep your head down and you just work your butt off. You don’t think about how long you’re going to stay, you just get your work done.
I sold it in ’97 and made a bunch of money, then worked for the people who bought it. I got out of it in 2000 and finally had an opportunity to think if I wanted to stay in Hong Kong.
Looked at Holland—boring. Looked at Australia, went there—beautiful but boring. Shanghai was exciting for six months, but very bad for my kids.
So I decided Hong Kong was the place where I would be forever. No more question marks. Taking away the question mark was a big relief. People always ask, what do you do next, where do you go? Now there’s no question.
I got involved in an NGO and from there things grew to Designing Hong Kong Harbor District to Designing Hong Kong.
My main aim in the District Council is first of all to address the issues in Pok Fu Lam. The barging point problems, first. The second is creating a waterfront promenade from Sandy Bay to Waterfall Bay. The third one is how to fix Cyberport Park.
Transport issues, bus routes. Footpaths people want built. I’ll do a planning seminar with the residents and then push with the government departments. But none of these will be instant. These things take years to get through the system.
Another aim: learn about the District Council process, and make changes through there. District Councils have to have a greater role in district planning.
If you can change the way they put the fences in Pok Fu Lam, you can set an example for other districts.
Instead of just going to the meeting and listening to the government’s plan, the council should go into the community and in four weeks time get back to the government with a response. This means the council needs a budget and a system for public engagement.
The energy within the senior level of government isn’t there. They waste time on external issues instead of running the city.
Since 1982, the senior management in the government has been dealing with an external event.
You think Donald Tsang wakes up in the morning and wonders about the problems with our bus routes? No, he’s wondering about something someone said in Beijing.
I had this expectation the election would be hard work but a pleasant event. I didn’t expect to have goons on the road and people hassling and yelling and screaming.
The arrest? I was laughing my head off. It was such a joke. But I should’ve walked away. I thought, I’m not afraid of you guys, a bunch of goons. I was just laughing my head off, stop this nonsense—but they called the police!
I was shocked, but I was also sad. My involvement in political affairs since 2003 has been with very positive people who want to do good things. Professionals working on the harbor front, green groups, and suddenly you find yourself with these goons.
The pan-dems came together and I helped galvanize that. I can cross bridges where others maybe can’t. Maybe I can walk across many different dividing lines.
After a while the wounds [among the pan-democrats] have healed but there are still obstacles in people’s heads. But the skies have cleared up.
Now there is even more pressure to be more involved with the party. I don’t have a problem with that.
If you can’t spend time helping the neighborhood, then write a check. Write a check.
I will continue to work on my Cantonese but realistically do not expect to be able to retort sharp questions in front of a camera to a standard appropriate for a politician any time, or ever.