Monday, 31 October 2016

turf wars update

When I posted Turf Wars in 2011, I did so in the expectation that the story still had some distance to run. At the time, the only hints that something may have been about to happen were the large number of signs proclaiming that the area in question was private property, and the counter-signs protesting that the land should continue to be used for ‘farming’.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before most of the previously cultivated areas had been fenced off to prevent their continuing use to grow vegetables, while almost every stone and brick building in the area was razed to the ground to prevent their reuse (wooden and tin shacks were simply left to fall down of their own accord). I recorded the state of play in A Blot on the Landscape in February 2015.

Nothing changed between that update and April this year, when a protest camp was set up to challenge the property developer, Henderson Land, and the way it had evicted the people who had been cultivating some of the land. The general area where all this argy-bargy has been taking place over the past five years is indicated by the red ellipse on the following map, while the location of the protest camp is shown by the large blue dot.

The following photograph was taken on 5th May from the south side of Ma Sik Road and shows the protest camp. The banner on the left reads ‘NO LAND, NO FARMING. PROTECT OUR FARMLAND’, while the green banner alleges collusion between the developer and the Hong Kong government. Because some characters on the banner on the right are obscured, it is impossible to provide a complete translation, but there are references to a systematic land carve-up and an insistence that land in the northeast New Territories be protected from development. The banners in the middle appear to be in Arabic, although it is more likely that they are in a South Asian script.

A better view of the protest camp is shown in the next two photos, which were taken on 1st and 3rd May, respectively. The roughly painted Chinese slogan reads ‘against New Territories northeast development’, while the two white Chinese characters translate as ‘guarding fields’.

At this time, a large contingent of security personnel was drafted into the area, although they were obviously told simply to monitor the situation. This was the state of play when I left for the UK at the end of May. However, at some point during the summer, Paula informed me that ‘things were happening’, although she didn’t have the time to keep too close an eye on the events that were unfolding.

Naturally, one of the first things I did upon returning to Hong Kong a week ago was to see what had changed during my absence. The protest camp had gone, and the site was now surrounded by industrial steel panelling. Most of the banners had also gone, but the next photo shows one that has apparently escaped the developer’s clearance team. As you can see, the English reads ‘Henderson kills HK’, but the Chinese is a rather more pointed comment: ‘Uncle Four, put down your butcher’s knife’. Uncle Four is of course the geriatric chairman of Henderson Land, Lee Shau-kee, and as I pointed out originally in Turf Wars, such an avuncular sobriquet is often used by greedy local box wallahs to imply benevolence.

Incidentally, it is gratifying to note that the door of the cat man’s hut has been preserved, even if the hut itself was demolished a couple of years ago.

So what else changed while I was away? The next two photographs were taken from a footpath about 100 metres east of the site of the protest camp, the first looking west and the second looking east. The third photo is of the footpath, which happens to be a public right of way and therefore cannot be blocked (in theory).

I have no idea what this is all about. There are scores of the concrete blocks seen in the first two photos, and it must have been a considerable logistical exercise to get them to where they are now—I estimate that each weighs significantly in excess of 2 tons. But to what end? Yet another oddity is seen in the next photo, which is of a large mechanical digger. This machine has probably been here since the blocks were brought to the site, but why is it now standing idle? A machine like this needs to be in constant use to justify its existence from a financial perspective, so I must assume that Henderson Land doesn’t mind the financial loss that the digger’s continuing idleness represents.

It would be reasonable to assume that that is it, but there is a mystery to clear up. Although I referred to cultivated areas being fenced off above, there are cultivated areas that have not been fenced off and are still being cultivated. These are shown by the red dots on the map (above). The next photo shows the most easterly of these cultivated areas, looking east. The fenced-off area to the left of the path was being cultivated five years ago but is now choked with head-high weeds. The blue sign reads ‘24-Hour Security Patrolling In Service’, and many such signs appeared during the summer, but I have yet to see anyone who looks even remotely like a security guard in this area since I returned.

So why has this and other cultivated areas not been closed down? There must be a link to the following sign, which is headed ‘LAND EXCHANGE APPLICATION’. For obscure legal reasons, Henderson Land has been unable to evict some of the ‘farmers’ here, which appears to make it impossible to develop the land in the way it would want, so it is trying to offload this troubling asset from its property portfolio. Or something like that. If you can explain this strange legal conundrum, please leave a comment. I’m baffled.

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