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West Side Story: The fight to preserve heritage and curb gentrification in Western District

“Redevelopment of old areas usually creates opportunities for developers to build residential apartment[s] as it is a good chance to earn money. Do we have any say on the redevelopment proposal? Or it is just determined by the authorities [and] the rich?” – Sai Wan Concern on Facebook

Redevelopment is a complex issue. The government procedures are complicated and there is an intricate web of vested interests. This, however, did not deter members of Sai Wan Concern; the grassroots organisation has energetically waded into the centre of the issue, with the goal of preserving the culture of their district, fighting gentrification, and fostering a strong sense of community amongst those active in Sai Wan.

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Sai Wan Concern showing MaD participants around Western District. Photo provided by interviewees.

When HKFP first met Judy Chan from Sai Wan Concern in January, she was taking participants in the Make a Difference Forum – many of them from Taiwan and mainland China – on a historical trip around Sai Wan. When we spoke to her again later, one Sunday evening in February, she had just finished leading a tour on trees at the University of Hong Kong.

Redevelopment & Gentrification

The origins of the Sai Wan group can be traced back to November 2014, when a piece of land on Tak Sing Lane in Sai Ying Pun was targeted for rezoning by local developers. It was originally an open area designated for recreational purposes, but landlords living in the area wanted to build what was known as a “cake building” – a mixed land use building with shops on the ground floor, and then residential flats on the other floors. Chan said that ever since the MTR opened, many developers have had their eyes on various pieces of land in Sai Ying Pun. “They wanted to make a profit.”

But what would that mean for residents living in the area? “The proposed building on Tak Sing Lane – if it became a reality, there would be very little space – just two metres – between the new structure and the existing buildings next to it,” Chan said. “The residents will pretty much be able to reach over and borrow soy sauce from their neighbours in the next building.”

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A man playing an erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument, near Water Street, Sai Ying Pun. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

When the founding team of Sai Wan Concern heard that this was happening, they got together to see what they could do about it. Most of them were already active in the Sai Wan community – some worked in the area, some lived there, while Chan was a former student at the University of Hong Kong. Although the term “Sai Wan” technically covers the whole of Western District stretching from Sai Ying Pun to Kennedy Town, most of the group’s work tends to focus on Sai Ying Pun as the members are more familiar with the area.

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Map of Sai Wan, area as shown in red. Photo: Google Maps.

“At first, we had a booth on the street and we would explain matters relating to rezoning [to pedestrians]. There was another plot of land on Third Street, which was slated for redevelopment into a hotel,” Chan said.

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Sai Wan Concern’s community workshops. Photo provided by interviewees.

Back in the colonial era, Chan said, the government wanted to make sure the building density was not too high, and hence listed the land as a recreational area so that people would not build structures on it. However, some were now submitting rezoning plans to change the land use, which would be reviewed by the Lands Department and the Planning Department. “There’s actually many of these cases in Hong Kong, and all the information is in the public domain, but most people don’t know how to check. It’s difficult to supervise the process.” That was what the group was here for – to explain the procedures to the residents in a easy-to-comprehend manner.

The Town Planning Board has since turned down the application to redevelop Tak Sing Lane, and, as for Third Street, the application has been put on hold and it has yet to be reviewed by the Town Planning Board. But the group also had another enemy: gentrification. Members of  Sai Wan Concern are currently fighting an uphill battle to preserve the characteristics of the neighbourhood.

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Fresh from the oven coconut tarts at a bakery at Shek Tong Tsui. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

“This area has changed a lot ever since the MTR arrived,” Chan said. “There used to be car repair shops on the High Street, but now it’s all high-end restaurants. So many of the restaurants that I used to eat at when I was a student at HKU are now gone. If I was still studying here, I wouldn’t be able to afford a lunch that costs HK$70 or HK$80!”

Chan said that the reason why so many people came together out of concern for this area was because Sai Wan is one of the oldest districts in Hong Kong, and until recently it had developed slowly, untouched by the MTR. As a result, the area retained elements of an older, traditional community. All of this, however, was slowly changing.

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Sai Wan Concern giving talks to the community. Photo provided by interviewees.

“When the MTR arrived everyone sort of accepted the fact that the rents would go up and those who couldn’t afford it would be forced out. But when it comes to the value of this city I think there’s more to it than just money,” Chan said.

The group firmly believes that the people should be well-informed about and have a say in the planning of the district. “Ever since [the demolition of] the Star Ferry Pier [in Edinburgh Place] and [the redevelopment of] Lee Tung Street [also known as Wedding Card Street], we’ve felt helpless towards the changes to the environment around us. We don’t seem to be able to control it even when it’s happening to a place just next to our own. But when it comes to whether a person wants to live in a district – it shouldn’t be just professionals looking at a map and going, this is how it’s supposed to be, this is how we make it Asia’s number one city. The residents have a right too,” Chan said.

Ho Sai Lane: Book exchange, tree tours, community newsletters  

“Afterwards we felt that this was too passive,” Chan said. “Every time a rezoning happens, we go after the developers and we try to do something about it, but then we thought, why don’t we initiate something instead?”

This was how Sai Wan Concern’s projects began. The group is only a little over a year old, but has already put together several impressive initiatives, such as publishing a regular community newsletter and organising guided tours. “We run features in the newsletter on different topics – one’s on the animals in the community, such as different pets found in the small shops in Western District. Another will be on ethnic minorities living here – this area is made up of people of many different races.”

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The Sai Wan community newsletter.

The group appears to have a constant stream of ideas for projects; this may be due to the fact that the members are all from diverse backgrounds. Some are environmentalists, farming enthusiasts and “upcycling” advocates who are part of the Go Green SYP project; one of their initiatives is encouraging people to bring greenery to the area with little farming projects they can do on their own, like planting up milk bottles. “The government wants to spend a lot of money on ‘beautifying’ the district with greenery, but it’s something the community is capable of doing.”

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Miniature potted plants hanging from a gate at Sai Ying Pun. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Some of the members are part of the area’s “shadow district council”, made up of candidates who lost in the previous District Council elections but would like to continue monitoring policies in the area. “We want to bring the community together to work on different things; we want to explore new ways to ‘play’ with the communal space. Unlike the actual shadow district council, though, Sai Wai Concern would mostly prefer to stay out of politics. “Although we tend to lean towards the pro-democracy camp, we don’t want to involve politics too much in what we’re doing. We don’t want to go up to residents and be like, ‘Hello, I’m from the Civic Party’, [when introducing ourselves].”

A lot of these ideas have to do with innovation and social intervention, Chan said. “Just a couple of days ago, we set up a communal book exchange shelf in Centre Street using old red wine crates. Some organisations have done similar projects in the past, but we want to do it at a fixed location to serve the people in this neighbourhood. We want to show them that these things are possible, and not just have them say, ‘Oh, the government will come and take it down.'”

The posters in protest were spotted at the chopped down wall trees in Sai Wan.

The posters in protest were spotted at the chopped down wall trees in Sai Wan. Photo: Facebook/westerndistrict.

The group is also very concerned about the environment, especially following the incident last year when trees in Bonham Road were chopped down by the government. Sai Wan Concern has a side project specifically on trees in the neighbourhood; “Previously, we’ve already run two workshops on trees, and we’ve organised an excursion to the King George V Memorial Park in Sai Ying Pun, teaching people how to identify different trees and check on their health. It’s also to let people be more aware of the trees around them that they walk pass every day. We’ll soon have a regular column on trees in the community newsletter.” Chan said that tree experts in the area have even showed them how they marked down the locations of all the trees on Google Maps.

The organisers of MaD, the annual forum for “aspiring changemakers”, got involved with Sai Wan Concern in various ways. For starters, MaD’s Accumulator Scheme gave the group funding to launch its community newsletter. But the “West Side Story” excursion Chan gave for conference participants, she believed, was more to do with MaD’s desire to execute and apply innovation on a district level, and Sai Wan Concern’s projects were good examples of how one can take inspiration from ideas they’ve learned in the conference and elsewhere, and adapt them to the needs of their hometowns.

Grapefruits: The construction of an identity

Although Chan herself lives in Tai Wai, she said that she did not have a strong sense of belonging to that district. “All I really did there was go home to sleep. I think Sai Wan’s a pretty amazing place.” Indeed, Western District has its own Facebook group with nearly 20,000 members, flooded daily with posts on everything from interesting news in the district to rants by residents. Those active in the district have affectionately nicknamed themselves “grapefruits”, a play on the fruit’s Chinese name, which contains the word “west”. Just last year, some members active in the group held a football viewing event for the Hong Kong vs China World Cup qualifier, which drew a crowd of thousands, all sitting on the slope on Hill Road, clutching beers, chanting and cheering at the screen.

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Hong Kong vs China World Cup Qualifier on Hill Road. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

The group was started by veteran district worker and activist Tai Ngai-lung, who Chan said has had years of experience mobilising workers to take part in labour movements in mainland China. The group was born out of concern for plans to redevelop the cargo pier in Sai Wan into a promenade managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and years ago, the University of Hong Kong and Caritas jointly organised a competition to encourage people in the community to come up with their own plans for the area. Tai believed that all stakeholders – such as dockworkers and those living in the neighbourhood – should be informed about the project, and that everyone should play a part.

“This group is very important in contributing to the unity of people in this district. It aims to track the changes and development in Western District. It’s also one of the earliest online communities on social media, and it’s inspired many other districts to start their own groups,” Chan said.

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Sai Wan cargo pier. Photo: Yu Hin Wong via Flickr.

Chan said that Sai Wan Concern hopes to create more opportunities to re-imagine the space in the community, and to encourage residents to come forward and attempt more things. “We want to give them more options to get involved – and not just take a picture about something they noticed in the neighbourhood, post it on social media, and then forget about it. We want to let them know, we can start small – starting with the trees just downstairs from where they live, for example. Recently we’ve got more messages from people, and they put forward their own proposals. My biggest motivation is that this group has enabled me to meet people who care deeply about these issues in the community.”

All of this, Chan said, helps build a sense of identity for those living here, which is essential to facilitating changes in society. “After the [pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014], it’s like most of us aren’t that sure what we can do anymore – but we can all start from ourselves, and our own district. When we manage to mobilise ourselves, that’s when the ruling regime starts getting scared, because they see what we can do.”

HKFP was a media partner for the MaD Forum 2016: Village Reinvented, which was held in January. 

West Side Story: The fight to preserve heritage and curb gentrification in Western District