Elderly Hong Kong residents battle government red tape to build a better community
Community campaigners from Tseung Kwan O get district councillors on their side over a hiking trail, a pedestrian crossing and library facilities
It’s been a tussle between community wisdom and bureaucracy, and throwing in the towel is not in the dictionary of these upbeat campaigners.
The elderly Tseung Kwan O residents have been battling red tape for years to make their community more user-friendly. Over the years, their efforts have led to a much-needed pedestrian crossing on a major road, rain shelters in a local hiking hot spot and an elderly-friendly reading zone in the local library.
It was their idea, they said, that inspired former chief executive Leung Chun-ying to announce in his policy address last year that the government would provide elderly-friendly facilities in all libraries.
As the proportion of the population aged 65 and above is projected to increase from 15 per cent in 2014 to 28 per cent by 2034, these retirees’ efforts have also demonstrated how the city can become more age-friendly.
“The benefits of community-led planning are that the government will know how to build practical facilities that people need and it won’t be a waste of money,” said 65-year-old Kwong Wing-tai, a member of the Tseung Kwan O Elderly Livelihood Concern Group.
Kwong and another 100-plus members of the group are among hundreds of avid exercisers who like climbing up Duckling Hill in Tseung Kwan O almost every day.
Neither part of a country park nor an official recreational place, the small hill used to lack any facilities or trails, but hikers have gradually turned it into a proper park.
They built stone steps up the hillside, created gardens, installed sun and rain shelters with bamboo or metal poles and canvas, donated exercise equipment for public use and engineered rain water collection systems for irrigation and washing.
But in 2006, officials started to tear down the shelters, saying they were illegal structures on government land. Instead, it built small covered seats with the top so high and narrow they could not properly shield hikers from the rain.
Considering the government facilities useless and a waste of money, hikers continued to put up their own shelters, while the government continued to remove them.
In 2011, the concern group collected more than 1,000 signatures from residents supporting the preservation of the shelters. Members also took local district councillors for hikes to show them the importance of the facilities.
Although the campaign failed to stop government action, it did force Sai Kung district council to persuade the government to fund the construction of two pavilions on the hill.
The council adopted calls for the roofs to be much wider and lower, but elderly campaigners were still unhappy because they were flat, instead of being slanted like their own ones.
“It’s so wet in Hong Kong,” 84-year-old group member Ko Chor-kim said. “Anyone with common sense will know that a flat roof will hold water and breed mosquitoes. Extra water can also leak through the roof.”
“They have a lot of patience,” said Ko Ming-hui, service supervisor of the Sheng Kung Hui Tseung Kwan O Aged Care Complex, who has been advising the group.
“They spend a lot of time in the community and they attend every district council meeting. They even monitor the progress of every project.”
Town Planning Board member Patrick Lau Hing-tat said district councils would be the best channel for community-led planning, but they had no decision-making power as the government had the final say on every proposal.
“The government has a lot of red tape,” Lau said. “It needs to consider what proposals to prioritise, which departments will be in charge of management and how to allocate resources among departments. All these procedures are very time consuming.”
Lau said the government should give district councils more resources, the power to make their own decisions and the authority to manage community facilities.
It was this same tenacity that kept the elderly residents fighting over three years for a pedestrian crossing – which was installed in 2009 – at the junction of Po Lam Road North and Po Fung Road.
Many elderly people needed to cross Po Lam Road North to visit a clinic and Ko Ming-hui’s elderly care centre, but there was only an underpass, which required people to either climb more than 100 steps or walk up a 200-metre ramp.
“Thousands of people needed to cross the road every day and many were elderly or ill,” 84-year-old Law Yat-kwong said. “There is the clinic, the elderly centre, a school, a church and Yau Yue Wan village across the road. How can you ask these elderly people to climb up so many steps?”
At first, the group’s proposal to add a pedestrian crossing fell on deaf ears. Undeterred, they persuaded district councillors and officials to walk through the underpass with them.
“In the officials’ eyes, resources should be used efficiently and there should not be a pedestrian crossing when there is an underpass,” Mak Yuen-lin, 69, said. “But they are very high up, they don’t know the difficulties facing common people. You need to let them experience it themselves.”
The issue was brought to prominence when two elderly people one day slipped on the steps. After the incident, the government finally started to take the problem seriously, Mak said.
But members remained dissatisfied by the short time that the green light was on as it did not allow elderly people enough time to cross the road. The Highways Department agreed that the crossing time should be extended several seconds.
“We feel we are doing something for our peers and the community,” Mak said. “We feel like fighting for it when something is reasonable. It may take a very long time for us to achieve one little thing, but if we give up, all our efforts will be in vain. We can’t accept that.”