Land grab

Will fairways be turned into flats in Hong Kong?


They don’t play golf

Most Hong Kongers live in tiny flats and the city has become so cramped that even the dead are struggling to be accommodated.

That’s why in 2015 the city proposed building a new ‘super cemetery’ that would offer a one-stop shop for all funeral services and interment needs, including a mortuary, crematorium and columbarium. Since land in the city is so scarce, the facility was to be located in the Sandy Ridge border region, next to the river that divides Hong Kong from Shenzhen.

Shenzhen residents were less than pleased. Many protested that home prices in nearby developments would plummet – as Chinese traditionally view it as bad luck to live near a graveyard (see WiC288).

More recently another proposal by Hongkongers has got their neighbours fuming again. This time an outspoken tycoon has suggested Hong Kong should move its prisons across the border.

Back in March, Charles Ho, who owns the Hong Kong newspaper Sing Tao Daily, appeared on a talk show where he openly criticised the government-appointed task force responsible for exploring options to boost the city’s land supply.

Ho made no effort to disguise his opposition to one of the ideas the task force has been looking at: taking land from an exclusive golf club in Fanling to make space for public housing. “Hong Kong is an international city… there are many foreign companies in Hong Kong, and they need sports, entertainment and facilities to build social networks – you cannot throttle the things that provide invisible benefits,” said Ho, who is also a member of the CPPCC, China’s top political advisory group.

A study has suggested that about 2,600 golf club members are regularly using the Fanling golf courses but the land they play on is enough to provide up to 13,000 housing units.

Needless to say, the club’s avid golfers – mostly wealthy and powerful elites – quickly echoed Ho’s annoyance, claiming that it would destroy an important training centre for the sport.

So when Ho was asked on TV whether he considered the plan an acceptable approach to creating more affordable housing, the tycoon instead offered his own solution: “If there’s a trade-off then [I] suggest we move the prisons – they occupy so much land, why don’t you use it, why don’t you move them?”

He continued: “Move Hong Kong prisons to the mainland – how much extra land would you have?” And besides, “You wouldn’t have to worry about those guys escaping.”

As outlandish as the idea may sound, the truth is, finding land to provide adequate housing has become a serious social problem in Hong Kong. The densely populated city has the world’s most unaffordable residential property – measured as a proportion of median income – according to Demographia, an urban planning consultancy.

Not only are apartments becoming more expensive, they are also smaller than ever. In recent years, the most common type of living space built by developers is the “micro-home” of 215 square feet or less. The more impoverished Hongkongers live illegally in squalid subdivided flats that are even smaller.

Aside from taking back the golf club, other proposals from the task force have been equally controversial. A plan to reclaim 130 hectares of land off the coast of Lantau island was lambasted as too costly. Another proposal to redevelop fringe areas of country parks – which account for a whopping 40% of the total area of Hong Kong – offended the environmentalists. Others, like the Hong Kong Economic Journal, criticised the government for not showing the political resolve to deal with the owners of the vast pool of brownfield sites (farmland polluted by industrial activity) scattered across the New Territories.

“It’s not really a technical difficulty, it’s more of a political problem,” Chau Kwong-wing, a member on the task force, said of the sites to the South China Morning Post.

Meanwhile WiC has heard members of the Fanling Golf Club describe government attempts to seize their land as “socialist”. That’s quite an insult in a city that – till recently – prided itself as being the most capitalist on Earth.

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