Veteran power broker Lau Wong-fat to call it a day after 35 years as chief of Hong Kong rural body

Age is catching up, Lau Wong-fat says after 35-year reign over rural body

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 12:20am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 6:00am

All-powerful rural kingpin Lau Wong-fat will finally relinquish the chairmanship of the Heung Yee Kuk - after 35 years at the helm of the statutory body representing indigenous New Territories residents and acting as chief negotiator in talks between villagers and the government.

Lau, 79, is ready to pass the seat of command to his son Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, 49, widely tipped as the political successor to his father in recent years.

The kuk's council, its top decision-making body, will hold an official election on Monday.

In a letter to his kuk colleagues yesterday, the senior Lau said his age was the decisive factor in his forgoing re-election.

"I am old and have already done what I should do," he told the South China Morning Post. "I will most likely not seek re-election to the Legislative Council, either. It is a really tough job."

Lau will, however, remain on the kuk's executive committee, which is part of the council. "I can still contribute after taking a back seat," he said.

His deputy Cheung Hok-ming said most of the kuk's councillors signed a petition last month inviting Lau to stay for another term, lasting for four years.

Asked if his son would indeed succeed the chairmanship, Lau was candid in his answer. "I support him, but my support is not enough. He needs everyone's support. I hope he will perform well [so] people will choose him."

Known to Hongkongers as "Uncle Fat", the veteran power broker has manoeuvred the corridors of power under both colonial and post-handover governments over the decades.

He first made his mark in 1960 when he became the youngest ever village head, and then rose to the post of Tuen Mun rural committee chairman in 1970.

Kuk council member Tony Chan Tung-ngok said a key contribution of the political strongman was his fight to insert an article in the Basic Law to ensure indigenous interests remained protected after 1997.

Leung Fuk-yuen, chairman of the Shap Pat Heung rural committee, summarised Lau's role in this way: "Brother Fat would remain as our spiritual leader and his influence would not fade."

Despite his strong leadership among peers, Lau has been a controversial figure. A notable incident was the 2009 exposé about the massive extent of his land ownership following his appointment to the Executive Council. The revelation triggered questions about a conflict of interests.

Nevertheless, he stayed on Exco until 2012. Land activist Chu Hoi-dick said that under Lau's leadership, the kuk had become a "landlords' club" rather than a body that cared for village issues.

Democratic Party member Lee Wing-tat, a former lawmaker who had regular contact with Lau over rural land matters, described the pro-establishment politician as a "person with remarkable political skills".

"Uncle Fat is very good at networking. He was always willing to talk to pan-democrats about issues such as the rights of indigenous villagers, even though we disagreed with him."

But Lee expected the installation of Lau junior to weaken the unity of the kuk - which could be favourable to pan-democrats in Legco and district council polls.

A kuk office-bearer who declined to be named was more optimistic, however. "Who would dare to challenge the one handpicked by Lau?"

Additional reporting by Gary Cheung and Jeffie Lam