POLITICS – Villagers of Ma Shi Po Fight Hong Kong’s Big Developers

A guest post from Chris Horton on how a rural farming community in northeastern Fanling is facing destruction as Hong Kong’s private housing developers move in.

Rail Link villagers and their supporters.

Ma Shi Po villagers and supporters make their appeal outside a property tycoon’s residence in Mid-Levels.

The rural area where I’ve been based since early 2013 is a narrow strip of land with densely populated towns featuring high-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls on one side and the mountainous restricted area that separates mainland China and Hong Kong on the other.

Having spent nearly all of the past 13 years in crowded mainland cities, I was thrilled to move to what felt like genuine countryside. I cycle everywhere I go, hike in verdant hills and never hear the sound of construction — which defined my last few years in China.

Best of all, there is a village nearby where I can buy fresh, locally grown, chemical-free produce. Despite being called Ma Shi Po (Cantonese for “Horseshit Place”), it is a pleasant collection of small farms, with no horses or horse droppings to be found.

After years of laziness, eating most of my meals at restaurants, or finishing leftovers at home, I am once again cooking for myself. Over the past year I have been lucky enough to have access to fresh seasonal vegetables such as salad greens, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, squash, cucumber, okra, broccoli, cabbage, sweet potatoes, beetroot, cauliflower, chili peppers and more, all basically organic. As a vegetarian, I have been happier than the proverbial pig in shit.

Ma Shi Po vegetables

A recent vegetable purchase from Ma Shi Po

After a couple of months of living in my new-found veggie paradise, I learned from one of the villagers that Ma Shi Po’s days were numbered, it was going to be converted to more apartments and shopping malls. I experienced the same sinking feeling that I’d felt so often in China when old or historical buildings were destroyed or when chengzhongcun, or “urban villages”, had been cleared for real estate megaprojects.

Ma Shi Po is on the northern edge of Luen Wo Hui, a town in Hong Kong’s Fanling area in the northern New Territories. The Hong Kong government has been working for years on pushing its Northeast New Territories New Development Areas (NENT NDA for short) project forward and is nearing the final stages before construction commences.

Ma Shi Po and several other villages are located within the land designated for the NENT NDA. Under the first phase of the US$15.5 billion plan, 60,000 new apartments will be built for more than 170,000 people. The first apartments are projected to come online in 2022.

Ma Shi Po

If all goes according to plan, Ma Shi Po (foreground) will resemble Luen Wo Hui (background) by 2022.

Hong Kong has some of the world’s highest rents, a burden that weighs heavy on everyone here who isn’t well-off. Much attention has been paid in the past couple of years to people living in ‘shoebox homes’ or even literally living in cages like animals because that is all they are able to afford. These are working people with jobs. Following the global trend toward greater income disparity, 20 percent of Hong Kong’s population of more than seven million is now considered impoverished.

The Hong Kong government subsidizes housing for more than half of the territory’s population, but there are still tens of thousands in the queue for so-called public housing that does not yet exist. There is no doubt that Hong Kong needs more public housing. Sixty percent of the new apartments to be built under NENT NDA are designated to be public housing, but six years is a long time for people to wait.

In the meantime, 6,000 or more villagers, mostly older farmers, will be dislodged from an area that comprises one-third of Hong Kong’s remaining 1,000 hectares of arable land that is currently being utilized for agricultural production. I recently asked one of the villagers at risk in Ma Shi Po what her and her family’s backup plan was, and as tears welled up in her eyes, she said they didn’t have one. With an ageing grandmother and parents who are lifelong farmers, their prospects in Hong Kong’s highly competitive job market are grim.

After speaking with different residents of Ma Shi Po I realized how precarious their situation is. Most are middle-aged or elderly, a few are in their 20s, but they all have the same thing in common: they are renting the land they farm, so none of them have a legal basis for challenging plans to destroy the village. For developers, large-scale greenfield development is much more cost effective and profitable than building one building at a time in places which would allow local agriculture to continue. Therefore villagers such as those in Ma Shi Po must be swept aside.

A protest last month in Mid-Levels

A protest last month in Mid-Levels

The role of developers in Hong Kong’s economy is hard to understate. Most of Hong Kong’s billionaires are involved in property, including Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing of Cheung Kong Holdings, as well as the Kwok brothers of Sun Hung Kai, Cheng Yu-teng of New World Development and Lee Shau-kee of Henderson Land Development.

Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, is a former surveyor and developer (he is the ‘Leung’ in DTZ Debenham Tie Leung, now known as DTZ). Leung and other property tycoons (former or current) including Li Ka-shing, Cheng Yu-teng and Lee Shau-kee have been given Hong Kong’s highest civilian honour, the Grand Bauhinia Medal. Land developers even have the right to vote in Hong Kong’s legislature via the real estate and construction seat under the territory’s functional constituency scheme, which enables certain industries that are deemed important to the economy to have direct representation in the local government.

Henderson Land has been particularly active in purchasing land in the areas to be developed by the government under the NENT NDA plan. According to research by JP Morgan, Henderson Land has acquired 2.7 million square feet of land within the area that is slated for development. Should the plan move forward according to schedule, JP Morgan estimates that Henderson Land could collect HKD2.1 billion to 3.2 billion (US$270.8 million to 412.7 million) from selling the land to the government.

One of the drills in Ma Shi Po.

One of the drills that has recently arrived in Ma Shi Po.

Villagers I’ve spoken with estimate that Henderson already owns 90 percent of Ma Shi Po. In recent weeks they say Henderson has moved drills used for geological surveying into Ma Shi Po – jumping the gun a bit, considering that the NENT NDA plan has yet to be formally passed by the government, although that appears likely. These gas-powered drills have brought an ominous noise to the once-peaceful village. For Ma Shi Po residents, especially the older ones, the drills and a recent government seizure of one of the farms have injected a sense of impending doom into the once-bucolic village. One villager in her 50s said she’s having trouble sleeping now and has lost more than 10 pounds in two weeks from constant worry. The younger villagers, who should be able to find some kind of work elsewhere if evicted, are no longer their chipper selves.

With no legal recourse against the NENT NDA, Ma Shi Po’s villagers have done their best to reach out to their fellow Hongkongers with the hope that with enough public opinion on their side, the NENT NDA could be shifted to other land not currently used for farming, such as the numerous lots used for scrap, parking and storage nearby.

The biggest potential source of alternative development land, however, is the 125-year-old Hong Kong Golf Club, which leases 176 hectares of land in Fanling from the local government for one Hong Kong dollar, or 13 US cents, per year. There are five other private golf clubs in Hong Kong, but many of the city’s wealthier residents believe building apartments on the Fanling course, which hosts the Hong Kong Open, would be devastating to the territory’s international image. There has been some government discussion of developing the course instead, none of it very serious.

The odds are certainly stacked against the villagers of Ma Shi Po. However, the lone weapon in their PR arsenal is a potent one: Hongkongers’ fear of mainland Chinese produce. The steady drumbeat of food safety scandals on the mainland, which is the largest supplier of vegetables to Hong Kong, has driven many young people, families and restaurants to Ma Shi Po and other villages in search of safe local produce. This has garnered the villagers a strong but loyal support base.

Ma Shi Po villagers have petitioned the government and made their case for saving Hong Kong’s remaining farmland at public consultations and other government meetings related to the development plan. But so far the NENT NDA juggernaut cannot be stopped.

Ma Shi Po

Ma Shi Po, via HK Magazine.

On April 14, tired of feeling helpless and refusing to give up hope, a handful of Ma Shi Po villagers plus some of their supporters from areas such as Sheung Shui and Yau Ma Tei visited an apartment building in Hong Kong Island’s pricey Mid-levels where Henderson Land’s Lee – Hong Kong’s third richest man, valued at US$20.3 billion – supposedly lives while his home on Victoria Peak is being renovated. In addition to a banner and signs, they also brought a loudspeaker and a recording of Henderson’s drills at work in Ma Shi Po, plus pots, pans and ladles.

Just before 6pm, the 20-plus protesters occupied the private drive of the building and began their brief, peaceful demonstration, which would last all of 20 minutes. A young woman used the loudspeaker to explain to passersby the plight of Ma Shi Po and the importance of local agriculture to Hong Kong. Then she asked the woman from the village who has been losing sleep and weight to speak about Ma Shi Po, where she was born and has lived her entire life. Speaking steadily at first, she soon burst into tears, as did her daughter, who embraced her as her mother continued to speak. I’d discussed the NENT NDA with both of these women before and they had never shown anything but a steely determination to stop it. Seeing them cry was unexpected and jarring.

While the apartment building’s security guards took photos and video and phoned the police, the loudspeaker was used to play a recording of Henderson’s drilling activity in Ma Shi Po as demonstrators banged pots and pans with ladles. To pedestrians walking by or tourists on the Peak Tram a few meters away, it must have seemed a surreal hybrid of noise rock and Cantonese opera. This lasted five minutes, after which the protesters chanted several times:

Stop the drilling!

Stop the relocation!

Rent out the farmland!

Return the land to the farmers!

And then it was over. It is unlikely that Lee heard the noise down below, if he was even home. He probably didn’t see the poster of his likeness with devil horns that proclaimed Henderson Land a “Village Killer”.

The demonstration had blocked two cars which were trying to exit the apartment complex and one that was trying to enter. The drivers and passengers waited patiently and politely after they were told that one of their neighbours was involved in the destruction of a village in which some of the protesters lived.

Both of Hong Kong’s free television stations were present, as were local independent media. In a path next to the Peak Tram tracks, the villagers held an impromptu press conference. Lightened by the catharsis of having their voices heard for a fleeting moment, everyone walked down the hill toward Chater Garden, where, exhausted both emotionally and physically, they sat on the ground and rested in the shadows of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscrapers. White-collar office workers talking on their iPhones streamed around them as they shared dried fruits and nuts.

Ma Shi Po from above

Ma Shi Po from above, via APYL on Panoramio

It will take a miracle to save Ma Shi Po, and the villagers appear to be doing all they can to create one. But the Hong Kong development machine appears to be unstoppable. Even if the villagers do manage to find new farmland – they say they’re not interested in the fallow plots with limited access that the government is offering them as compensation – it’s difficult to say with any certainty that they’ll be able to work that land for long.

It seems that the rest of the remaining farmland in Hong Kong will be developed in the coming years. On April 12, the government unveiled plans to convert 152 hectares of rural land in Yuen Long district into a town with 33,700 apartments for more than 90,000 residents. When told that Hongkongers have less and less of an appetite for development of the territory’s rural areas, one Town Planning Board member brushed the comment off, saying that development of Hong Kong’s rural areas was “inevitable”.

Hong Kong currently imports 90 percent of its food. As the government moves to develop what little arable land remains, which can act as a short-term buffer when mainland food crises hit, it is also unbanning toxic substances from imported produce. This all but guarantees mainland produce with an even larger majority of the Hong Kong market.

Theoretically this former British colony is guaranteed autonomy until 2047. But losing the last vestiges of food security will render that autonomy increasingly superficial. Soon, Hong Kong too will understand that engineer’s lament over the needless destruction of farmland.

Chris HortonChris moved to Hong Kong in early 2013 after 13 years on the Chinese mainland. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Visit his portfolio at ChrisHorton.com or follow him on Twitter @heguisen.

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