2011.03.17 The Disappearing Village (HK Magazine)
Since the controversial demolition of Tsoi Yuen Village earlier this year, Hongkongers have despaired at the demolition of traditional rural communities. Now Emily Wu digs deep to uncover another village, Ma Shi Po, which faces extinction at the hands of property developers.
By Emily Wu | Mar 17, 2011
On a tranquil Wednesday afternoon, a farm fair in Ma Shi Po Village attracts groups of housewives from an incongruously luxurious middle-class residence, Belair Monte, right opposite the half-empty village. They come to buy fresh tomatoes, beetroot and flowering Chinese cabbages reaped right from nearby lands, products of a burgeoning organic farming industry.
Ma Po Po Community Farm has drawn attention to the plight of Ma Shi Po Village through acoustic music shows, tours and workshops organized by a group of Post-80s activists committed to saving it. But despite a publicity push, the village might still be doomed, having already been partly leveled to make way for redevelopment and residential towers. This green spot in the northeastern part of Fanling is not the only near-casualty of redevelopment—in recent decades, much of Hong Kong’s arable farmland has rapidly disappeared as a result of an increasing emphasis on urbanization.
According to government projections, the population in Hong Kong will increase from the existing 7 million to around 8.4 million by the year 2030. In light of this growth and the corresponding increase in long-term demand for housing and employment, certain areas like Ma Shi Po Village have been earmarked for demolition to make way for new homes.
The village, once home to 700 families, now contains just 100 because a wave of residents moved out after the government labeled it one of three “Northeast New Territories New Development Areas” back in 1998. The three new towns proposed, mainly for residential use, were Fanling North, Kwu Tung North and Ping Che/Ta Kwu Ling.
Since then, villagers say they have had to endure countless unannounced intrusions by staff from the village’s developer, Henderson Land Development Company Limited. The developer needs to buy up all of the land in the village so that it can knock down existing buildings and start constructing high-rise housing blocks.
The plan was shelved without explanation until just a few years ago, when the Chief Executive announced in his 2007-08 policy address that continuing the development of these New Development Areas was one of 10 major infrastructure projects needed to achieve economic growth. The move provided new impetus for Henderson Land to evict villagers in order to get the ball rolling on new residential towers. (The government instituted a special plan excusing themselves from land resumption and clearance, leaving it all up to the developer.)
One member of the tiny community is Leung Chun-yin, a 27-year-old full-time farmer at Ma Po Po Community Farm who is one of Ma Shi Po village’s staunch defenders. He is not new to the Post-80s activist circle. He participated in protests to save Queen’s Pier and Tsoi Yuen Tsuen village, and now he’s made himself a contributing member of Ma Shi Po Village by joining the farm in its efforts to grow organic produce. Joining Leung’s crusade to defend villagers is 22-year-old Cho Kai-kai, who proved herself an ally by leaving behind her home in Tseung Kwan O to move to Ma Shi Po last November.
“I have learned how to appreciate the nature and the homes of the villagers,” Cho says. “I will let more Hong Kong people know about [this place].” She has taken an active role in speaking up for their rights, calling up Henderson Land to complain after she learned that Leung’s electricity was cut after workers knocked down vacated farmhouses nearby.
Henderson Land has already acquired around 90 percent of the village’s land, and Cho believes the developer is determined to clear the entire parcel, likely causing much turmoil for the villagers.
The demolition process in particular spooks the villagers, who fear toxic waste material isn’t being properly removed from the area. They lodged a complaint with the Environmental Protection Department.
Once the village’s landowners (mostly indigenous residents who no longer reside in Ma Shi Po but merely rent out their land) agree to sell their property to Henderson, the non-indigenous villagers who actually live in houses on the property have no choice but to move out.
The Henderson Land spokeswoman says the land resumption is carried out in a peaceful way; a notice is posted outside a farmhouse one to two weeks before demolition work begins. She reiterates that, as the developer, Henderson Land has no obligation to compensate the villagers, yet as a gesture of goodwill, it is paying out a subsidy of approximately HK$100,000 to each household that is evicted. But the villagers tell us that they haven’t seen any money.
“Villagers… who have spent around 13 years fighting with Henderson to keep their homes… familiarized themselves with the land laws, and now help the older villagers who get intimidated by the lawyers’ letters [which are written in English],” says Cho.
Yet throughout this long battle, most of the villagers are staying passive. Wu Wai-hung, the officer in charge of Shek Wu Lutheran Community Development Project, says his team of social workers has tried to help facilitate discussion between the developer and the villagers.
Wu is also encouraging Henderson Land to keep the village’s redevelopment as smooth as possible. “In a letter we sent to Henderson last week,” he says, “we highlighted the problem that after the demolition process, with only the rooftop removed, the remaining iron sheets are blown away easily and hurt the villagers living nearby.”
Wu says his group urged the Planning Department to sit down for a meeting with the villagers before they officially lay out all the terms of the development plans, but the request was in vain.
Before the implementation of the development plan, the government consulted every interested party—except the people who actually lived in the village. Two sessions were conducted in 2008 and 2009 in which the public was allowed to give feedback to the developer—in theory.
“I attended the second session, and it was totally ridiculous—simply a PowerPoint presentation given by the officials,” Cho explains. “The only response they gave was, ‘All your views are being heard and more time is needed to consider how best to address your needs.’” The third session has been postponed, rescheduled for the coming summer. It’s usefulness, however, is questioned by the villagers.
Both the government and Henderson Land have been stressing the importance of giving a new face to the New Territories. Their expectations might be unrealistic.
“I couldn’t help laughing,” Leung says, “when the officials said the New Development Areas would be turned into another Central and Causeway Bay.”
The villagers who are left don’t want to be compensated or relocated; they are only seeking the right to stay in their homes. But in spite of efforts of activists like Leung, Cho and Wu and the nascent organic farming movement, Mai Shi Po Village risks becoming the next bit of old Hong Kong to be bulldozed in the name of progress.
“I call myself a Ma Shi Po villager,” Cho proudly exclaims. But, as the months continue to pass, how many will stand beside her?