The Battle for Hoi Ha Part I: Village Battle, City Soul

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Development, mystery land sales, conflicting values, protests, environmental degradation, and money – lots of  it – are at stake in a pretty village by a marine park in the sea in Sai Kung. Some believe that as goes Hoi Ha, so go our country parks – and our natural heritage. HT launches the first of a series on a battle that will climax on Nov. 27th. Follow this series to discover a uniquely Hong Kong crisis.

Far far away from the madding crowds, there is a village by the sea:  Hoi Ha. It is so far from Hong Kong’s powerbrokers in Victoria Harbour that your phone will think you are in China – you can see Guangdong’s green shores on a clear day.  In this idyllic little village, all of Hong Kong’s dramas are being played out.

As one LegCo member commented during an off-the- record tour, (and HT paraphrases): I’ve got to get out of Central and get out here to where the action is. Some believe that so goes Hoi Ha, so goes Hong Kong.

On one level, it  is a battle to save a village, its environment and its character. On another, it is the battle to save a rare marine environment famous among divers and conservationists. For some, it is an assertion of ancestral rights. For some, it is about money.  Lots of it.

Paul Zimmerman, district councilor and champion of sustainable urban and country planning, has called it a ‘bellwether’ that will suggest how the other 77 enclaves within our Country Parks will develop: slowly and in harmony with the parks, or willy nilly to allow land and money grabs to whoever can game the system. As goes Hoi Ha, so goes our country parks.

Bellwether (noun)
1. The leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck.
2. An indicator or predictor of something.

Battlegrounds have arisen and many are still in play. Tai Tan, Pak Sha O, Sai Wan. There is a similarity to the local groups that clash over each one. The question that must be answered  is: Why should people care?

Hong Kongers: More than land hungry

The love of nature, real or imagined, has become an aspiration for a significant number of Hongkongers.

As Hong Kong has developed, it has acquired modern values. While many aspire to live in luxury, or even modest, flats in controlled environments above shopping malls with tutorial centres and cinemas, others yearn for a deeper connection to something more real. The love of nature, real or imagined, has become an aspiration for a significant number of Hongkongers. A recent march to ‘Save our Country Parks’ attracted over 1,000 people to a relatively remote location. This number is a fraction of those coming out to support  democracy,  protest National Education, or even to push back against the new stamp duties.   But their numbers could grow as the community begins to understand the threat to the environment they cherish in their minds, even if they only visit it annually.

Technical and dry arguments about zoning and setbacks and DPAs, OZPs and SSSIs do not inspire the masses like a good Victoria Park to LegCo march with signs, effigies and simple slogans. But if the public imagination finally catches on to the idea that their natural birthright is disappearing before they get to enjoy it, the government could have a new mess on its hands. Paul Chan’s recent musings on using country parks for public housing may have been a test to see how the public reacted. The jury is still out on Hong Kong people’s commitment to their natural environment. We look to Hoi Ha for clues about the future.

Hoi Ha - 12BY THE SEA: Hoi Ha: ‘under the sea’. (Photo: Dominic Powers)

The End of the Road
Hoi Ha is remote.  From Sai Kung town, it is another $110 taxi ride into the Sai Kung Country Park. Private cars must secure special permission to drive down the road – albeit a wonderfully paved road.  On the weekdays, the area is tranquil and deserted by all but the indigenous villagers,  a handful of expats and local, non-indigenous homeowners with alternative working lifestyles.  There is a school bus service, two beaches and low-impact water sports businesses including sea kayak rental and diving.

The area houses more than monkeys:  wild boar, leopard cats, fishing owls, cobras, porcupines, feral cows and much much more.

The diving is apparently exquisite – the waters off Hoi Ha are home to a marine park that houses a renowned coral development and almost – not quite – pristine waters. WWF has a marine education centre not far off. Student groups and tourists occasionally are bused in so they can walk to the beach, drop their garbage everywhere, and troop back – learning experience accomplished! Some residents patrol the non-gazetted beach to clean up garbage left behind by interlopers – the locals clean up after themselves. One elderly long time resident arrives daily, delivered by boat with her husband, to make the beaches clean.  The dogs and children all know each other.

The two beaches also have a river that runs to them. Te village itself is nestled into a little valley.  The area is deemed to have loads of ecological value.  On a weekday holiday when HT visited, the road was empty, but  the village surprisingly busy.  Line-ups of day trippers waiting for the bus home were being harassed by a large aggressive monkey grabbing at whatever looked like it might contain something edible.

We’re told the area houses more than monkeys:  wild boar, leopard cats, fishing owls, cobras, porcupines, feral cows and much much more. The coral formations, over 64 species of them, in the bay are the best in Hong Kong, hosting a plethora of aquatic wildlife. And some believe all it is under threat.

Hoi Ha - 4
BLUEPRINT FOR BATTLEGROUND: Mostly now developer-owned pristine territory in pink, current village in blue.
(Modified from The Professional Commons report ‘Proposals for the
future planning of Hoi Ha’.)

The Drama

Land had been purchased below the high tide mark – illegal across all of Hong Kong.

A little more than three years ago, advertisements for a new luxury complex of villas by the seaside in Hoi Ha hit the market – in Japan. Local residents were made aware that many of the the native sons of the village had sold their birthrights to developers including some Japanese investors. The irony was rich – Hoi Ha was one of the invasion routes of the Japanese military on that fateful day in December of 1941. The oldest residents of Hoi Ha have not forgotten.

Regardless of the fact that the villas had not been built and the land had not been zoned for building, plans for a massive development, including jetties into the marine park were touted. No one had been consulted. Construction and sewage of a development all up the river and along the coastline couldn’t be good for a marine park – even if it was legal. However, investigation revealed that land had been purchased below the high tide mark – illegal across all of Hong Kong. Old maps that didn’t reflect the impact of erosion (from dredging sand to build Tai Po Village), and the encroachment of the sea, meant developers had bought former agricultural land that was now underwater. Technically illegal, but perhaps laying a claim to build a dock or jetty to a Japanese buyer unfamiliar with the high tide law.  A massive local outcry ensued and the war was on.

Stall, stall stall
The government enacted a standard cooling-off tactic.  The Town Planning Board (TPB) designated the whole village and surrounding area a Development Permission Area (DPA).  This meant that the community  – i.e. anyone who cared – could provide their  input.   The bureaucrats of the Town Planning Board would conduct research and take recommendations from the community, the Agricultural and Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), and the Country and Marine Parks Board (CMPB).   They would communicate with the disciplinary services, Lands Department, and anyone else that could possibly have a remit over the area.  They would come up with a recommendation about how to zone to land to present to the Town Planning Board itself.

The DPA had a definite lifespan – 3 years.  After 3 years, The Town Planning Board was required to produce a plan and publish it.  Or in the lingo of Hong Kong zoning:  gazette a draft OZP – an Outline Zoning Plan. The draft appeared (almost) on time on Sept 27, 2013. From there, a two month timer started ticking. When the time is up, the draft becomes the OZP. According to one Town Planning Board member HT spoke to, he had never seen major changes to a draft OZP at the end of deadline; only minor changes on rare occasions.

The concern is that Hoi Ha and its unique character will be lost from Hong Kong’s collective heritage.

The draft is out and it isn’t good for those who claim to be trying to Save Hoi Ha, or Defend Hoi Ha or be Friends of Hoi Ha. These are just some of the groups, some new, some old, promoting a vision for Hoi Ha that doesn’t include intensive development that could destroy the marine park, the surrounding conservation area and green belt, and idyllic way of life  in the village.   The area owned by developers was zoned in such a way that a number of options now exist for the developers to dramatically alter the character of the area, clearing mangroves, tearing out forest and despoiling the river, bay and local hydrology.

The concern is that Hoi Ha and its unique character will be lost from Hong Kong’s collective heritage. If it is not lost to overbearing development, then to rapacious builders of haphazard village houses who play sons of the soil, only to decamp to a London flat and sports car paid for with their standard village house – their birthright. Ofttimes, these ‘New Territories Exempted Houses’, are built with minimal supervision, planning, or infrastructure, resulting in chaotic villages, sewage percolating into ground waters, effluent drains running into nearby streams, and unlawful occupation of land for roads and parking.  Costing all in, construction and ‘related fees’, about $6M HKD to build, such homes are now selling for up to $16MHKD. A $10M clear birthright can be a powerful incentive to lobby.

And as goes Hoi Ha, so go our country parks. If Hoi Ha, with its marine park and conservation areas are under fire, so are 77 other enclaves within Hong Kong’s country parks. This issue is one to watch and learn. For politicians, it will land on your desk soon. For the rest of Hong Kong, it is a question about the future we want to build and leave for our children. Stay tuned.

In Issue 10 of Harbour Times, we will get into the details of the combatants, what they are fighting for and how they play the game. In future treatments, we will examine the ins and outs of land deals and what the the zoning means.  Birthrights claimed, septic tank hydrology, giant bureaucracy,  deadly snakes, public battles, secret battles, lobbying and more will be investigated.

The series:
The Battle for Hoi Ha Part I: The Bellwether
The Battle for Hoi Ha Part II: Zoning out
The Battle of Hoi Ha Part III: End of the Line for Hoi Ha