Tearing the Urban Heart out of Hong Kong

For centuries, going back to the Sung Dynasty, the district now known as Kwun Tong in Kowloon was translated as “officials’ wealth hub,” it was an area of salt fields owned by court officials that eventually would evolve into Hong Kong’s largest industrial district, a thriving warren of factories, industrial units and teeming public and private housing estates near the old Kai Tak airport runway

But that all is about to change. Hong Kong’s modern day officials are determined to create a new wealth hub by ripping out a huge swath of Kwun Tong, and replacing 1,860 households and 300 retail shops with five soaring residential blocks, a 280-meter-tall office-hotel tower and a sprawling shopping mall. The current residents and shop owners will be swept out of the place they have lived for decades only to be replaced by a HK$30 billion, 400,000 square meter project, the biggest ever undertaken by Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority.

Alan Leong, a Hong Kong lawmaker, last September formed a group called “KT Vision” in an attempt to help residents navigate their way through the renewal plan and to propose fundamental revisions to the existing urban renewal strategy. Ultimately, Leong’s group would conclude that there are no checks and balances on the URA, which has overwhelming discretion over the choice of a redevelopment model. Under the banner of creating “quality and vibrant urban living in Hong Kong,” the agency is not required to answer requests from affected property owners and tenants and can do pretty much whatever it wants. According to Leong, the Kwun Tong project will be another mammoth uprooting of residents and businesses that are lively and viable, in favor of throwing up massive new structures to replace the old, a pattern repeated throughout Hong Kong. .

A survey conducted by Leong’s group shows that 74 percent of respondents think that the redevelopment project should be a mix of residential and commercial, with both high-end and affordable flats and retail shops that cater to high- and low-income residents. The same survey says 63 percent of respondents want to preserve the existing open streetscape and to have more green space.

However, the URA has its own agenda. In a move that only appeared to be consultative, the URA presented in August last year three glitzy development models to the public, from which one would be chosen.

“Ever since the URA presented three proposed development models, the whole exercise has become a ‘choose one out of three’ property sales advertisement,” said one activist. “In short, the URA is intent on destroying a commoner’s Kwun Tong and turning a 40-year old living street history into an HK$8,000-a-square foot luxury residential and high-end shopping district.”

Contrary to what the majority of residents would like to see a neighborhood that could give them a sense of belonging and its own character the URA submitted last month to the local Town Planning Board a draft development scheme plan based on one of the three models. Not that one differs much from any of the others, as all three are designed to gentrify and uproot the district.

It isn’t the first time the URA has taken a draconian approach to implementing renewal. Wan Chai’s Lee Tung Street project, which wiped out Hong Kong’s famed Wedding Card Street, a much more sensible plan was put forward by a group of local citizens only to have it turned down by the URA because the authority had already begun to acquire the property – not to tear it down or start to rebuild, but just to acquire it.

Legislator Chan Yuen-han says that relocation of local business hubs by the URA destroys livelihoods. The most prominent cases can be found in the Lee Tung Street project, the Fa Yuen Street, nicknamed Sneaker Street for its scores of shoe shops, or Wing On Street, where scores of stores specialized in cloth sales. All were frequented by locals and tourists alike. In other words, there are hefty social costs involved in URA’s urban renewal projects.

Perhaps to soothe the KT Vision campaigners, the plot ratio of the submitted scheme plan has been reduced from 7.98 to 7.5, which would mean “the maximum level of market risk that we can take,” according to Billy Lam Chung-lun, URA’s managing director, as the internal rate of return would be lowered to 5-6 percent from 6-7 percent.

While such vague and scanty financial figures are hardly adequate for the public to judge for themselves, it is also clear that the URA has one hand tied in carrying out its functions, as it is obligated under a URA strategy plan formulated in 2001 to operate on a self-financing model.

It all finally comes down to one vital question: is the fundamental objective of urban renewal to squeeze the last dollar out of urban land or to truly improve Hong Kong’s quality of life? It goes without saying that if the URA had just left the existing businesses and homes alone, they wouldn’t have been taking any market risk at all.

Leong has been urging the SAR government to revise the URA Strategy. He suggests that major revisions should aim at facilitating public participation in the urban planning process based on community needs and, freeing the URA from the “financially self-sustaining” bondage, i.e. changing its “developer” role to one of a visionary urban renewal facilitator.

Leong also points out, in his summary report, that the URA is presently not answerable to any authority, has unchecked power but no accountability aggrieved citizens have no redress.

But the URA does not like critics and more than other agencies of Hong Kong’s semi-democratic government. His service as a non-official, non-executive member of the URA board was terminated last month as he was not re-appointed by the government while the other eight incumbents were. “Government expects those who are appointed to statutory bodies to shut up and not express any opposing view to the public,” Leong told reporters.

Asia Sentinel received this letter in response to the article above:

Dear Sir,

I used to live on Second Street. No more. More than a hundred families, including mine, have been forcibly removed from the block bordered by Center Street and Eastern Street between First and Second.

The URA tore down our homes to make way for one of its development projects.

The URA says its mission is to, "Create quality and vibrant urban living in Hong Kong - a better home in a world-class city."

But a better home for whom?

On Second Street the URA destroyed all the funky four and six story buildings to make way for a 600-unit apartment building, an old folks home and an open space in the middle of the block.

This is the Hong Kong version of urban revitalization: push out the people, tear down their buildings and give one of the oligopoly developers a chance to rake in safe money on a government contract to put up yet another too big, god-awful box of flats.

The URA destroyed my neighborhood.

It's sad. There was no call to kill this community. The neighborhood was gentrifying on its own. Artists had moved in across the street and refurbished a shop into a combination gallery and studio. A photographer had just bought in the building next to mine and renovated his flat. Another professional moved in down the street and did one of the most beautiful renovations I have ever seen anywhere.

Last year a family rented a shop across the street. The husband started fixing cars. His wife set up a little florist's stand on the side of the shop. Her son helped her with the plants and flowers. It was a beautiful oasis of green in the middle of the block.

My neighborhood was mixed race: mostly Chinese but also Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Filipinos, various kinds of Westerners -- it was vibrant, exactly the kind of mixing up of peoples and cultures "Asia's World City" purports to be striving for.

My neighborhood was also economically mixed, mostly poor people but with a heavy sprinkling of middle class folks and a very few doing even better. Some of my neighbors were older retired people who had lived on the street for 30 or 40 years. I feel sorry for them. The URA picked them up and parked them in dreadful public housing clear across Hong Kong, out toward Chai Wan and other places far away from their homes.

The URA never asked any of us what we thought or what we wanted. The URA never looked at the quiet renewal already taking place. The URA never sent in a survey team or a cultural anthropologist to get any real information from the the people who lived on Second Street before deciding on the neighborhood's destruction. The URA never suggested giving people on the block grants or loans to refurbish the old buildings (a much cheaper option with taxpayer money than building something new and a process that was beginning to happen on its own anyway, without any government involvement).

What the URA did do was use its statutory power and a fair amount of Hong Kong taxpayer money to force us all out, forever. None of us was ever consulted about anything. None of us was allowed to stay. None of us will ever be invited back.

The block's civil fabric, all the daily transactions, all the relationships among neighbors and traders that made our community strong, all of that quiet binding of ties, will have to start again from zero. Except the people won't be us. They'll all be new people, mostly young couples looking to buy their first flats and leverage up before selling out and moving on.

Everything peculiar and charming about my Second Street block is gone.

The week I handed over the keys to my flat the Independent Commission Against Corruption arrested 29 URA officials for fraud. The arrested officials were all abusing the system they administered in order to line their own pockets. But it's not just the identified criminals who cause trouble. Just about everything the URA does smells bad.

What the URA did to Second Street was a crime against the people who lived there.

Make no mistake, the URA is perpetrating a kind of below-the-radar social engineering with its seemingly innocuous redevelopment projects, which amount to nothing less than a massive campaign to move artists, retirees, the poor and working people out of older, lower density housing that happens to be in what have now become high-value areas and replace them all with crops of fresh-faced yuppies in high-rise buildings.

The destruction of Hong Kong neighborhoods needs to stop. Control of the 225 projects on the URA's books needs to be taken away from the agency and given to a review panel before the URA does any more damage.

Better yet, let's just eliminate it all and start fresh, this time with a focus on renovating existing housing stock and a commitment to helping people save and improve their neighborhoods by their own actions.

Jay Shaw and Rhea L. Briones-Shaw