All through my almost five decades of working in Hong Kong, one simple rule of thumb has helped guide me a lot: if you don’t know for sure, go and see for yourself. It served me well as a reporter on the Star newspaper in the early 1970s, then as an investigator in the ICAC, and in various positions in the government from 1980 onwards.
What’s wrong with the freshwater stream serving Mui Wo? Go and investigate together with an engineer from Discovery Bay development. What’s the problem with the street lighting in a Lamma village? Go and look with some local villagers (and go at night, you idiot).
So when the Task Force on Land Supply, chaired by Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, considered whether all or part of the Fanling Golf Club should be taken back for use as public housing, I did not jump to an immediate conclusion. Because I did not know, and saw no immediate reason to care. After all, I am not a member of any golf club, I do not play, and I do not even watch others play on TV though I must admit I made an exception for the last nine holes of Tiger Woods’ 1997 Masters triumph. But that was more for the social and political implications rather than the sporting spectacle.
And at first blush the Fanling organisation does not seem naturally deserving of sympathy. After all its image for a long time has been of an old-fashioned sports venue with a whiff of being something of a colonial relic, a game played mostly by wealthy foreigners. And even if more locals are now engaging in golf, it’s still mostly for the rich elderly, right?
By contrast, the need for more land for housing is obvious and pressing. The micro flats, the subdivided units – these are scandals that shame Hong Kong and call for urgent remedies. At a superficial level, it seems a case of no contest.
But then the issue became controversial and a topic of public interest. The RTHK radio show I co-host has also discussed the subject on some occasions. So I felt obliged to go and look.
The sheer beauty of the site takes one’s breath away. The fresh air is a treat for the nostrils, the grass is so green and well-tended it is almost too sharp for the eyes to absorb. And the trees, my goodness those trees, everywhere you look as far as the eye can see, they fill your heart. A corner of woodland paradise in a city that can sometimes seem like a concrete jungle.
Within a few minutes of arrival you know – not suspect, you absolutely know deep down in your bones – that this site must be preserved for future generations.
This overpowering sensation leads the non-golfer to find out more. About the Ming dynasty tombs which would be affected by redevelopment. You learn about the variety of trees and the amazing age and spread of some of the banyans. You learn about the species of flora and fauna, some incredibly rare and endangered. The butterflies, the birds. These are all facts on the ground.
All of which leads one to step back and examine the site in the wider context of the overall housing situation. The entire site is 172 hectares which if it were taken back would make quite a dent. The proposal now being examined by the Advisory Council on the Environment is to develop 32 of them of which just nine would be for housing, a little over five per cent of the total. So from having been seen by some as a potential major part of the solution to our housing woes, the golf course has been reduced to the role of bit player. It could make a modest contribution but doesn’t fix it. For that we need a proposal at the strategic level, such as Northern Metropolis.
It is clear from the proceedings in ACE that the development proposal still has strong government backing. Former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor seemed obsessed by it, reportedly having made a surprise visit a decade ago when she was Secretary for Development which did not go well. One of her successors, Michael Wong Wai-lun, who oversaw the work of the Task Force, is now Deputy Financial Secretary charged with coordinating work on housing. And by one of life’s interesting coincidences, the chairman of ACE is the same Stanley Wong of Task Force fame who is thereby in position to now mark his own homework as it were.
Despite this powerful line-up, there has been considerable pushback from some of the unofficial members of ACE. The main thrust of their position seems to be that we shouldn’t be wasting so much time and energy on a minor site but should instead focus on options that make a substantial impact. The District Council has also objected, citing traffic problems and other grounds.
No doubt the debate will rumble on. The convenor of the executive council, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, has already called for a re-think. The government has to be careful because while housing is a top priority so is maintaining social harmony. This must not turn into an “us versus them” debate along the lines of “let’s show we’re serious about helping the poor by taking something away from the rich.”
The winning formula here is surely to preserve an area of outstanding natural beauty, including a world-class sporting facility, while looking into lease terms and improving public access. That way a city treasure is retained while all citizens become stakeholders.