Hong Kong’s ‘King of New Territories’ Lau Wong-fat dies at age 80

Rural strongman lauded for protecting the interests of indigenous villagers during long career as head of the Heung Yee Kuk

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 July, 2017, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 6:09pm

One of Hong Kong’s most influential political figures, the rural strongman Lau Wong-fat, affectionately called “Uncle Fat” by close friends and relatives, died on Sunday. He was 80.

Village leaders on Sunday night hailed Lau as a great leader for his fight to have their rights and interests enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution, and top officials praised him as a bridge between the government and villagers.

His son, Kenneth, said Lau died peacefully at home in the early hours. “Family members were beside him,” he said, not mentioning the cause of death.

Lau’s brother-in-law, Kingsley Sit Ho-yin – speaking outside Blessing Villa, the family’s mansion in Tuen Mun – said: “Uncle Fat had been taking rest at home [in recent years]. His health was largely fine but suddenly turned bad in recent days.”

In a statement, the Heung Yee Kuk, a government-recognised advisory body on New Territories affairs, described Lau as a man who “loved the country, loved Hong Kong, and loved the rural community”, and acknowledged his 35 years of leadership as kuk chairman.

Lau’s critics liked to tease him about a less edifying moment in his long career: his late arrival at the Legislative Council in 2015 for the vote on political reform, which triggered a bizarre walkout by more than 30 of his fellow pro-government lawmakers that turned the expected defeat of the government’s bill into a rout.

The Heung Yee Kuk: how a village governing body became an empire of rural leaders

But the fact that so many legislators were willing to try that tactic so Lau could arrive in time for the vote perhaps spoke of the rural patriarch’s esteem in local political circles.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor offered her condolences to Lau’s family.

She described his death as a “great loss to the Hong Kong community”. In a statement, Lam – who worked with Lau while serving in a variety of government posts – highlighted the important role he played helping the government iron out troubles with villagers.

“I often needed to consult him on affairs of the New Territories; collaborated with him in rural developments and in the improvement of the livelihoods of rural residents,” Lam said.

“He took concrete actions in assisting the government in tackling problems associated with the development of the New Territories by settling disputes and finding win-win solutions for all.”

In 1898, Britain took over the New Territories and leased it from China for 99 years after the Second Convention of Peking. The colonial government treated locals there as a special class of resident and negotiated with them on land development.

The kuk became a formal advisory body in 1959. It has been common practice for officials to consult it on rural developments.

Lau was born in 1936 to poor farmers in a village in the remote rural area of Tuen Mun, now a new town with streets lined by banks, malls, and high-rises. In his hamlet of Lung Kwu Tan, the man who would later be known as “King of the New Territories” toiled, shoeless, on vegetable plots.

In the 1960s, having established himself in business running a modest Yuen Long grocery shop, he was elected a village representative. By 1966, he sat on the Heung Yee Kuk and eventually became kuk chairman in 1980, a post he would hold until 2015.

Lau persuaded fellow rural leaders to accept the government’s plans to open up the New Territories, turning areas that were once the sanctuary for indigenous people into sprawling present-day new towns like Sha Tin and Tai Po.

In recognition of that contribution, the government named Wong Chu Road, a major road in Tuen Mun new town, after him and his wife, Lau Ng Mui-chu. San Fat Estate, the first public housing estate in Tuen Mun, was named after him and Chan Yat-sen, another prominent kuk figure.

As colonial administrators developed a more representative government, and Sino-British talks on Hong Kong’s future began, Lau got more involved in politics. In 1985, Beijing appointed him to the committee that drafted the city’s post-handover constitution, the Basic Law.

Kuk members have said Lau’s key contribution was his fight to insert an article in the Basic Law ensuring indigenous residents’ traditional rights and interests were protected after 1997.

Those rights include the so-called small-house policy, which grants indigenous men – that is, men from families that can trace their male ancestry back to 1898 – a plot of land to build a three-storey villa.

Fellow Basic Law drafter and veteran Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming praised Lau for his good manner. “Although we had different stances, he never used harsh language to shame pan-democrats,” Lee said.

Since the handover, the kuk has become a key force in the pro-establishment camp.

President of the pro-Beijing New Territories Association of Societies Leung Che-chueng, also a legislator, described Lau as an extraordinary leader blessed with political skills.

Leung said the government tightened building restrictions for village houses after the handover, and Lau played a crucial bridging role between the government and villagers.

Citing the protests against then development minister Carrie Lam in 2011, Leung said Lau, with political nous, was able to pacify the angry villagers and strike a deal with the government.

“This was the unique feature of Uncle Fat. He had the ability to make the villagers listen and he is very good at solving political problems,” Leung said, citing also Lau’s handling of the recent saga over New Territories villagers wanting to form a political party.

Government places review of New Territories small-house policy at bottom of its agenda

Leung said Lau calculated well the political pros and cons and convinced the villagers to cooperate with other parties instead.

In the 1990s, rural politics got a facelift, including a reform, pushed by Lau, allowing women to vote for, and run to become, village representatives.

Lau first became a legislator in 1986, starting a long career sitting in Legco’s functional constituencies. He was appointed to the Executive Council in 2009 by then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, whose election campaign Lau and the kuk had supported.

In recent years, Lau’s health had been a concern. In 2015, he wrote to fellow rural patriarchs saying he would not continue as kuk chairman. He was later said to have had brain surgery. And in 2016, citing poor health, he did not seek Legco re-election.

His son, Kenneth, succeeded him as chairman, and was also appointed by Lam to Exco.

Dr Bruce Kwong Kam-kwan, a co-investigator with the Hong Kong Transition Project, a research centre at Baptist University, said rural politics could be thrown into confusion without the older Lau.

“With Uncle Fat there, those rural leaders would probably give face to him and would not make Kenneth Lau’s life too difficult. But the junior Lau will now have to build up his influence quickly or else he will soon find himself losing control over his fellow rural elders,” Kwong said.

Additional reporting by Ernest Kao and Nikki Sun