Lau Wong-fat, the former chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk (the “Kuk”, i.e., the rural council) who was often dubbed the “King of New Territories”, died on Sunday at the age of 80.
For indigenous clansmen in the New Territories, Lau, more widely known as “Uncle Fat”, will probably always be remembered for his dogged perseverance and untiring efforts in successfully pushing for the listing of the “lawful traditional rights and interests” of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories into Article 40 of the Basic Law back in the 1980s.
As Chen Zuoer, the former secretary general of the Hong Kong Basic Law Drafting Committee, has put it, “Lau is a by-word for Article 40 of the Basic Law”.
Lying at the heart of the “lawful traditional rights and interests” of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories guaranteed under the Basic Law is the Small House Policy, also called the “Ding Huk Policy”, under which all male adult heirs of indigenous clans (the “dings”) are entitled to the right of buying a piece of land in designated locations at below market price and build a three-story house of no more than 2,100 square feet.
Each “ding” can only build one house during his lifetime and the right itself is not transferable.
The policy was introduced by the former British colonial administration back in 1972 as a special measure to compensate indigenous clansmen for their loss of land as a result of the government’s massive program to develop new towns in the New Territories.
Back in those days there was plenty of vacant land across the New Territories and the total population of Hong Kong was just around 4 million, and therefore there wasn’t much public opposition to the Small House Policy when it was introduced.
However, 45 years on, the population of our city has already grown by a whopping 3 million, while land that is suitable for building residential flats has become increasingly scarce, thereby raising the question of whether the policy is outdated.
As property prices and rents in our city have continued to soar in recent years, there have been mounting calls from the public for the government to scrap the policy because it amounts to giving preferential treatment on housing to indigenous clansmen in the New Territories at the expense of the overall public interest.
Citizens living in urban areas who can’t afford a flat amid skyrocketing home prices are particularly resentful of the policy.
Besides, it has become increasingly apparent that the policy itself is falling apart and can no longer serve its intended purpose. Even though every “ding” is still entitled to the right of building a house, there is now simply not enough land for them to exercise this right.
As a result, many “dings”, who have spent 10 to 20 years waiting for the Lands Department to issue them a permit to build their houses, have yet to hear anything from the authorities. And the reason for that is a no-brainer: while there are more and more “dings” eligible for their rights, there are less and less land for them to build their houses.
And for those who are lucky enough to finally get allocated a piece of land to build their own houses, many just simply can’t afford the soaring but unmortgageable construction costs that could amount to up to a million dollars.
In the meantime, while the Small House Policy itself has been run into the ground, there is growing doubt as to its legitimacy in today’s society where public awareness about gender equality has continued to rise.
As a result, more and more people are asking: if male heirs of indigenous clans in the New Territories insist on keeping their “ding’s right” on the grounds that it is legally guaranteed by the Basic Law, then does that mean female heirs can also lay claim to the right by invoking the existing Sex Discrimination Ordinance?
It appears that even though “Uncle Fat” has passed away, his story is far from over yet, nor is the escalating public dispute over the “ding’s right”. And the mounting public grievances against the Small House Policy are something that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her new administration cannot afford to ignore.
How his son, Kenneth Lau, who succeeded him as chairman of the Kuk, is going to handle the dispute and strike a reasonable and sensible balance between the traditional interests of his fellow clansmen and those of the public can indeed be seen as a sequel to Uncle Fat’s legend.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 24
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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