Is there middle ground in Fanling golf course debate as Hong Kong tries to solve housing crisis?
The site in the New Territories has long been a flashpoint between the city’s haves and have-nots, but with time running out to find an answer to an impending land shortage, the need for compromise has never been greater
Tucked away in a rural area of Sheung Shui in the New Territories, the Fanling golf courses are a serene and picturesque expanse of greenery and majestic old trees.
Centuries-old graves and calm lakes dot the landscape, and once in a while, a celebratory shout from a golfer on one of the three internationally renowned 18-hole courses punctuates the air.
But in the public eye, the 170-hectare site at Fan Kam Road has long been a flashpoint between the city’s haves and have-nots, as space-starved Hong Kong seeks more land for homes and to fuel the economy.
Leased to the Hong Kong Golf Club by the Home Affairs Bureau until August 2020 for about HK$2.4 million (US$305,738) a year, the Fanling courses have come under fire by critics who say that they are occupying prime land for the benefit of a privileged few.
The city’s political and business elite are among the club’s 2,600 members, including the current Hong Kong chief executive’s advisers Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung and Ronny Tong Ka-wah.
Meanwhile, ordinary families struggle to afford homes in the world’s most expensive property market.
Some 283,000 families and individuals wait 4.7 years on average for public rental housing, while another 210,000 people are holed up in subdivided flats that are less than hygienic and have fire safety risks.
Last month, a government-appointed task force on land supply began a five-month public consultation on 18 options to provide 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land for development in the next three decades.
Redeveloping the courses – which occupy an area equivalent to nine Victoria Parks in Causeway Bay – was listed as one of the four fastest options to get more land. And it has since prompted the most rancorous debate out of all the options, with things even getting physical.
A day after the public consultation began, a protester who stormed the club’s gates calling for its redevelopment into blocks of flats was grabbed by the neck and thrown to the ground by an angry golfer.
The Hong Kong Golf Club has suggested that it will fight tooth and nail to preserve the “integrity” of the courses.
Is the debate over the Fanling courses destined to remain fractious? Can there ever be a middle ground on the way forward?
Already serving the public good?
Hong Kong Golf Club captain Arnold Wong is among those who insist things should stay the way they are.
He has been trying to correct “misconceptions” about the Fanling courses, for instance, that they serve only the rich, are not accessible to the public, and that their demise would not have any impact on the sport.
“This is absolutely wrong,” he asserted.
“It is a fact that we open this place to the public from Monday to Friday. Each year more than 120,000 rounds of golf are played here, and over 40 per cent of the games are played by non-members.”
Media reports have questioned the 40 per cent figure, pointing out that it includes games played by relatives of Hong Kong Golf Club members and those who are from other golf clubs.
Non-member locals pay green fees of about HK$1,100 per round of golf.
Only members are allowed to use the facilities on weekends, and each pays an annual fee of about HK$30,000. The fees go towards running the club, but membership numbers are capped so that non-members can also use the courses.
As a result, there was a long queue for individual membership, Wong said.
“Actually anyone can apply to be a member, but we’ll give priority to those who have good credentials within the golfing fraternity.”
The club has about 365 corporate memberships, and the trading of these memberships has also sparked criticism that the club is just filling its coffers. The current market rate for each corporate membership is about HK$17 million, or about HK$6.2 billion in all.
Wong clarified that the trading of corporate memberships “had nothing to do with the club” but was a business activity between corporate members.
“In the 1970s, the club ran into financial difficulties, so it issued a batch of corporate memberships to raise funds to ease its shortfall problems. In those days big enterprises purchased the corporate membership as recreational welfare for their management staff to play golf at the Fanling site,” he explained.
The club stopped issuing new corporate memberships in 1986, freezing the number at 365. Companies wishing to become corporate members have to purchase the membership from an existing member.
Wong pointed out the club had been subsidising the golf course’s operations. For example, every year the club spends more than HK$7 million to sponsor the Hong Kong Open tournaments, which bring in championship players and thousands of spectators.
He stressed that the Fanling course was the only one in Hong Kong suitable for hosting international competitions.
“The golf club has contributed a lot to the development of golf. Why would someone want to destroy this place and all our efforts over all these years? There are many ways to resolve Hong Kong people’s housing needs. There is no need to place the golf course in an antagonistic position with the housing issue,” he lamented.
But Ho Hei-wah, a government-appointed land supply task force member and director of the Society for Community Organisation, said it made sense for the golf course to be sacrificed to benefit the wider public.
“My stance is very clear. Now the whole society needs to squeeze land everywhere by whatever means to cope with the dire housing shortage. We even target narrow vacant space between buildings. When everybody is paying a price for this problem, it is unreasonable that the course won’t make any compromise,” he said.
Ho admitted that he personally did not like golf.
“Playing golf takes up a lot of land. I personally think it’s a waste of land resources. Besides, a lot of pesticides are used to maintain the grass, which can damage the overall environment,” he said.
Ensuring heritage is not lost
Based on a government consultancy report, the task force said there were two options for Fanling: either developing the 32-hectare eastern course, identified as the Old Course, to provide 4,600 flats, or developing all three courses for 13,000 flats.
But tree specialist Professor Jim Chi-yung, chair of geography at the University of Hong Kong, said the whole area should be preserved.
“Don’t just see the trees without seeing the forest,” he warned. “This is a top quality heritage garden with superb landscape quality, woodlands and grass. It’s a great pity if the site is converted for building houses.”
Jim, who has been dubbed “tree daddy”, said that in other countries, such a top-quality garden would be treated as a national treasure, and nobody would dare to ruin it.
The 18-hole Old Course was constructed in 1911. It is the world’s second-oldest course outside Scotland, after the Royal Calcutta Golf course in India, and is home to a cluster of historical buildings.
About two-fifths of the course is occupied by forest, with more than 30,000 trees on site. Some 160 of those trees bear the potential to be registered as Old and Valuable Trees, such as incense trees, banyan, yellow cow wood and Chinese Holly.
There are 68 ancestral graves and more than 74 urns located throughout the site, with some dating back several hundred years to the Qing and Ming dynasties. The graves are the ancestral burial places for the five clans of indigenous villagers that still live in the communities surrounding the club. One grave, from the Ming dynasty, is more than 460 years old. Every September, more than 200 descendants visit this ancient tomb and conduct a ceremony.
But Ho, who insisted that the debate over the Fanling courses was not targeted “at rich people”, said that with proper zoning, the government could redevelop the areas around the heritage sites. To him, the area should still be used for housing.
“I don’t understand why some people can view this place in a cavalier manner and frivolously think that this beautiful site with precious historical, cultural and ecological value can be used for building housing blocks,” he said, adding that the site could be turned into a park if it was not used for golf.
He pointed out that there was a severe lack of parks in Hong Kong, saying his study showed that each person could enjoy only 2.92 square metres of urban public space – equivalent to a single bed space.
A possible middle ground?
Chan Kim-ching, founder of policy concern group Liber Research Community, accused the task force of seriously lowballing the number of flats that could be built on the site in an attempt to influence the public into dismissing the proposal.
He admitted however that housing development was not necessarily the only option for the site.
“We don’t think that the site must be used for building homes. It can still be retained for golf development and other recreational purposes such as a public park for every Hongkonger.”
Jim argued that there was plenty of land available in Hong Kong to meet the public’s housing needs.
“To claim that there is insufficient land in Hong Kong is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.
“There are a lot of vacant farm sites owned by private developers. The matter is whether the government is willing to negotiate with private developers to buy back the vacant sites,” he insisted.
Chan pointed out that at the heart of the debate was the issue of why land that could be used for the public good was being privately managed.
There was no reason for the government to allow the Hong Kong Golf Club to “monopolise” use of the prime site, he said.
“Actually the issue is not only about the Fanling course, but all private clubs. This is a policy originating from the colonial government for the privileges of the upper class.
“When the problem of housing shortage is so acute, [but] the government still chooses to retain the privileges of this class of people, it is inadvertently advancing public antagonism against rich people.”
If the government took back the site and ran it as a public golf course with “affordable rates”, it would serve the purpose of promoting the sport while allowing more people to benefit from the site, he said.
The public consultation, which is set to conclude in November, may reveal whether Chan’s suggestion would be a satisfactory middle ground for other Hongkongers.
But even if it is, it remains to be seen if the government will attempt to convince the powerful Hong Kong Golf Club lobby of the need to accept change.