Can Hong Kong’s tech hubs and new towns coexist with squatter huts in rural New Territories?

Village communities have for years been bulldozed to make way for high-rise government developments, but a shift in policy is on the cards that could see the two intermingle in a curious mix of old and new

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 1:16pm

For the past seven years, Yeung Koon-ping has lived with a nagging fear that the village house his family has called home for more than half a century will be torn down.

The 400 sq ft squatter home in Ping Yeung San Tsuen in the rural New Territories is nestled among large swathes of abandoned farmland and scrapyards, in an area the Hong Kong government has been eyeing for years as the site of a planned new town.

A bus driver in his 40s, Yeung spent weeks in 2012 protesting against plans to build high-rise communities that would replace his home with luxury flats he would never be able to afford.

A surprise U-turn by officials offered Yeung a reprieve in 2013, when the development of the area around his village was postponed and subjected to further study.

But he knew it was a looming nightmare that was bound to come back and haunt him.

“I don’t feel like we’ve dodged a bullet. It’s only a matter of time before the government comes back for us,” Yeung said.

The family’s fears have indeed resurfaced. A study published this year suggested three potential development areas in the northern New Territories could house up to 350,000 people and create 215,000 jobs by hosting a logistics hub as well as innovation and technology companies.

The sites, lying along the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, are: San Tin and Lok Ma Chau; Man Kam To; and Heung Yuen Wai, Ta Kwu Ling and Queen’s Hill.

Villages considered non-indigenous – meaning those established after 1898 when the New Territories were leased to Britain – have for years been bulldozed to make way for government developments. Residents would at most get cash compensation or public sector accommodation, if eligible.

However, settlements built before 1898 have often been spared and their inhabitants entitled to new housing in the same area if forced to move out of their homes.

Efforts to wipe out villages in favour of urbanisation have sparked heated protests. Thirteen activists were handed jail terms last year for storming Hong Kong’s legislature in 2014 during a demonstration against new town development.

Their resistance has largely been in vain, with blocks of flats planned in Hung Shui Kiu, Kwu Tung North and Fanling North slated to begin taking in residents by 2023. The construction will displace at least 7,800 existing residents.

This battle could all change however if the government follows through on a landmark shift to its planning approach for new towns.

The Post earlier found authorities were proposing a change of policy which would see non-indigenous villagers like Yeung, many of whom live in squatter settlements, avoid eviction.

It is part of efforts to integrate, respect and preserve both urban and rural communities in their natural landscape.

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Could such an approach mark a turning point? Will the northern New Territories, often seen as Hong Kong’s last frontier, avoid the upheavals of the past and allow old and new communities to coexist harmoniously?

Learning lessons

The slogan “no demolition, no removal” has been chanted repeatedly by villagers across the city over the past few decades. It has almost become synonymous with protests against new town development.

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It is no surprise that villagers want to maintain their tranquil way of life. Yeung spent much of his childhood running through farm fields and lush hills where everyone knew each other’s name.

In his close-knit community, doors were left unlocked and meals were often shared.

“Villages are a special thing in Hong Kong. If you live in the city, you often don’t even know your neighbour’s name,” Yeung said.

Such strong attachment to rural life has meant proposals to raze non-indigenous villages have always been met with strong resistance. Overnight rallies have drawn thousands onto the streets seeking to make their voices heard.

“The biggest mistake the government made in the past was wiping out what was originally there and treating the place like a piece of white paper,” lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick said.

Chu, who has long fought for the rights of non-indigenous villagers threatened by new towns, said this approach was “the most efficient” way for the government to maximise land use.

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Over the years he had witnessed tiny increments of change in the government’s traditionally top-down mindset, he said, such as moves to preserve more agricultural land. But he believed only radical change would do.

Chance for a better future

A preliminary study looking into developing the 720 hectares of northern New Territories land indicates a landmark change could be in the pipeline.

According to a Post review of the layout plan, 43 “clusters” will be set aside for “existing settlements”.

In Ta Kwu Ling and Ping Che, where most of these clusters would be concentrated, the locations match those of non-indigenous villages, many of which are squatter settlements.

The government said the plan was a “more harmonious approach to foster urban-rural-nature integration”, and was “in line with contemporary public aspirations” to respect and preserve rural communities, cultural heritage and farming activities “where possible”.

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About 180 hectares – roughly a quarter of the total development area – is designated for villages and existing settlements, while 280 hectares are earmarked for new flats.

A layout plan for Ta Kwu Ling and Ping Che shows new low-rise residential areas next to existing villages, surrounded by large strips of farmland or green belt and open space.

New town ‘unlike any other’

Since the 1970s the government has developed nine new towns to decentralise the population living in jam-packed downtown urban areas. But the settlements have generally been called mundane and monotonous.

Planners have high hopes that the northern New Territories, where an estimated 12,000 people live, will “not just be a duplication” of Hong Kong’s concrete jungle.

Proposals to preserve farming and build logistics, innovation and technology hubs would make the area stand out, experts said.

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Some 170 hectares of agricultural land – most of which is currently active – could be preserved, according to the Development Bureau.

Within the three development areas are 253 vegetable farms in Ta Kwu Ling, Ping Che and San Tin.

Chau Kwai-cheong, an adjunct associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of geography resource management, said the plans would make it a “new town unlike any other”.

“Our previous new towns have generally been very stereotypical, without any distinguishing features. But if this one could be an integration of existing rural farmland and new residential developments, it would be a very innovative approach,” Chau said.

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There were many benefits to keeping agricultural land, he added, as it could act as natural ventilation corridors and provide scenic views for residents.

And farming would provide local produce in an industry currently dwarfed by imports from mainland China, as well as serve educational and recreational purposes.

Innovation hub

More importantly, the area’s strategic location near Shenzhen has officials hoping it will become “more than just a boundary area”, according to the study.

Although rural, more than 610,000 people and 42,000 vehicles pass through the area daily, statistics from 2015 show.

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A science park or industrial estate could be positioned some 500 metres from the Liantang-Heung Yuen Wai boundary control point.

A proposed logistics hub and space for innovation and technology firms would be a “critical success factor” for the new town, former Hong Kong planning director Jimmy Leung Cheuk-fai said, as it would attract overseas talent and create jobs for professionals.

Leung even suggested areas at the border be reserved for tech corporations to build self-contained communities.

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“It could be something like a smaller scale version of a Google campus or Facebook town, where companies have offices, a cafeteria and co-living dormitories,” he said.

But companies eyeing the area as a possible home should not rush to up sticks. If the northern New Territories plan is given the green light, it could take anywhere from 22 to 26 years to complete, after rounds of feasibility studies and public consultations.

Integration challenges

While integration is a buzzword for the planned communities, concerns abound however that the old and new might not mesh well.

Lam Kam-kwai, vice-chairman of the Ta Kwu Ling district rural committee, worries that the new planning approach might mean a growing disparity between rich and poor, especially those living in run-down squatter huts. Such contrasts would be on stark display when new communities are built around old ones, he said.

“At first people will think they want to stay here, but when everything around them is developed, they might think: ‘Why did the government just leave us out of the plan?’” Lam said.

Residents should be given an opportunity to give their houses a facelift or even a chance to purchase their homes from the government or private land owners, he added.

But this could prove difficult because squatters – many of them refugees who fled mainland China in the 1950s and 60s – have no legal ownership rights. They have merely been tolerated by the government.

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Their status means they are not allowed to freely renovate their homes. They have to abide by strict regulations and use materials approved by the government in 1982 when their structures were registered.

Political implications

Tam Po-yiu, a former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, said the government’s new approach could be a “good first step”, but he was not yet convinced without details of implementation.

“It’s easier said than done. Of course, such an approach is ideal on paper, but the most difficult part will come when you have to carry it out,” Tam said.

According to the bureau, at least half of the development area is privately owned. Officials would have to deal with a host of vested and conflicting interests – from landlords and developers to villagers and farmers, Tam said.

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In response to a Post inquiry to clarify if squatter homes within the “existing settlement” areas would be preserved, a Development Bureau spokesman only said they were “mindful of the expectation to minimise the impact on existing residents”.

But that did not mean squatter homes “must be avoided” if removal was considered necessary to increase land supply, the statement read.

Professor Ng Mee-kam, director of the urban studies programme at Chinese University, said the government should worry less about policy and more about preserving communities.

“It’s really about whether there’s a real community, rather than about the squatters,” Ng said.

“In Hong Kong, we are losing these kinds of communities [found in the villages]. Our city really needs to think long term about how to build communities, not just how to house people.”

But these pressures come against the backdrop of a space-starved city consistently rated the world’s most unaffordable housing market, where officials are desperately seeking ways to boost land supply.

Some argue opposition to new towns has helped prolong the city’s housing woes, but Ng said such arguments smacked of political expedience.

“A good plan is about building resilient ecologies, communities and economies. Whether a settlement will be conserved should not just be about whether officials anticipate a strong political reaction,” Ng said. “Then it’s not planning, it’s just political calculation.

“It’s time for the government to be more courageous and adventurous, and try something new.”