If you think China’s pledge to respect the status quo in Hong Kong for 50 years sounds like a faint echo from a distant galaxy, there’s one place that can serve as a potent metaphor for the profound changes the territory has gone through and the still indeterminate future where it is heading.
The place is called Boundary Street.
It is a major thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Kowloon and links Junction Road in Kowloon City and Hai Tan Street in Sham Shui Po at both ends.
Large sections of the street have been taken over by rows of exclusive, tranquil residential quarters characterized by the scent of white sandalwood and elegant villas and townhouses.
Yet as its name suggests, it was a boundary at the very beginning of Hong Kong’s brief history.
How it has transformed from a boundary into a street is an oblique reference to the many inevitabilities that stem from the treaties signed between Britain and the Qing Dynasty more than one and a half centuries ago, the transfer of sovereignty in 1997 as well as the shape of things to come after 2047.
The southern part of the Kowloon Peninsula was ceded in perpetuity to Britain after the signing of the Convention of Peking in 1860, 18 years after the British took over Hong Kong Island.
Thus, the boundary between China and the Crown Colony shifted from Victoria Harbor to a straight east-west line that runs from the mosquito-ridden wilderness of Kowloon Fort to the Stone Cutters Island in the west.
Boundaries between countries normally meander and thus a straight line that separates a piece of land, like Boundary Street, is usually a historical mark of colonialism.
An infantry brigade of the British army was stationed on a small hill near today’s Hotung Road to guard the frontier and fend off attacks by brigands from the neighboring mountainous areas.
One fact that many Hongkongers may not be aware of is that large chunks of land that make up today’s Kowloon, including Kowloon City, Kowloon Tong, Sham Shui Po, Wong Tai Sin and Kwun Tong, are on the northern side of the boundary stipulated in the convention.
Thus, they were not the part of the ceded Kowloon Peninsula as defined in the treaty back then.
In other words, these places belonged to the New Territories that were subsequently leased to Britain for 99 years in the Convention Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory signed in 1898.
These areas, bordered by the boundary and Lion Rock, didn’t join Kowloon until the 1930s when the colonial authorities rezoned these places as “New Kowloon”, after most parts of the old peninsula had been built up, according to Government Records Service and compiled archives of the Hong Kong Heritage Project.
That was also when the boundary between the ceded area of Hong Kong and the borrowed part started to develop into a bustling street that it is now.
Boundary Street is also a boundary that defines Hong Kong’s unique two-tier land leasing regime.
Location is always a key determinant of home prices in the local market but it was particularly so before 1997, as two identical properties could be poles apart in pricing, depending on whether the location is on the southern or northern side of Boundary Street.
Leases of land north of the street — areas in the New Territories and New Kowloon which were borrowed from China — were made for a term of 99 years less three days from 1 July 1898.
All such leases would expire in 1997 as noted in the colonial government gazettes.
That’s why a home built north of the Boundary Street was not a permanent asset to some extent and thus sold at a cheaper price.
Understandably, the city’s business tycoons and the upper class rarely dwell in the New Territories.
This also explains why the colonial authorities didn’t begin developing Sha Tin, Ma On Shan, Tin Shui Wai and other major new towns until after Hong Kong’s political future was crystallized.
All these leases of land north of the street have been given a uniform extension expiring not later than 30 June 2047, without payment of any additional premium, as stipulated in Annex III of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and related clauses in the Basic Law.
But since the extension, an annual rent based on the rateable value of the property is now being charged.
Leases of land south of the street are valid for 75, 99 or 999 years and are renewable at a re-assessed annual rent.
Fanny Iu, executive director of the Hong Kong Heritage Project, said during a site trip that a family living on the quiet La Salle Road north of the Boundary Street moved to a tenement block in Chai Wan on eastern Hong Kong Island in the early 1980s, fearing that China would reclaim the area.
London’s meek stance in the negotiations and Beijing’s restoration of the entire territory, not just New Territories and New Kowloon, must be beyond the weirdest imaginations of that apprehensive family.
Today, homes along Boundary Street are much sought after as the neighborhood is known for its cluster of some of Hong Kong’s most reputable schools, including La Salle College, Maryknoll Convent School, Diocesan Boys’ School and Bishop Hall Jubilee School.
Parents buy or rent homes in the area so that their kids can attend these elite schools — without giving a hoot to which side of the street the property is located.
But the uncertainty remains. How will the government deal with the expiry of land leases in just 32 years’ time?
Will people be expelled from their homes for which they have spent decades serving mortgages or will these leases be extended once again with a new set of land premiums?
No one has an answer yet as it is determined by the continuity of the “one country, two systems” policy after 2047, which is a bigger uncertainty by itself.
Thus, Boundary Street remains as a subtle division between two territories in Hong Kong and also a symbol of the city’s unknown, unguaranteed future.
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