Was CY Leung reduced to tears by the difficulty of finding land for public housing? He should get down to the Shatin District Land Office.
To understand why, let us take a short walk. We start at the top of Sui Wo Road, where observant visitors will have spotted one of those maps with a little roof over it which indicate the entrance to a country park, and one of those striped poles which indicates the entrance to a road which the Water Supplies Department regards as its own exclusive property.
Walk down the Water Supplies Department road (which they don’t mind as long as you are not driving) with a steep cut slope on your right and the back view of Greenwood Terrace on your left. Shortly you come to a turning round place. But the path which continues in roughly the same direction has been widened to take cars so there is still plenty of room. Follow this for maybe a quarter of a mile. This is easy walking because it keeps more or less level. Later you will hear a stream to your left. Eventually you come to an open space. There is a small turning round place for vehicles, a flight of steps down, a rain shelter, and a bridge over the stream. Over the bridge you go up a flight of steps and there is a choice. You can go ahead, up further flights of steps and after much walking you will reach the Maclehose trail. Alternatively you can turn right, onto a small path which parallels the stream.
At this point you are entering a rather charming and very quiet little valley. At one time it had a farm in it, but this was abandoned long ago. Later it enjoyed some notoriety as a place where illegal immigrants hoping to “touch base” could take a rest before trying the last dash into the urban area and safety. There were still some informal shelters from that era when I first explored the valley in the 90s. In those days there was a network of paths, but these have been much neglected. Substantial official-looking bridges have collapsed; trails have disappeared. Never mind.
The path you are on, though neglected, is still usable. Carry on with the stream on your right for a couple of minutes. You may now think you are as far from civilization as a person can reasonably expect to get in Hong Kong. But look through the trees to the right. There is a sign. A rather luxurious signboard on four feet firmly planted in concrete foundations. What is it doing here? The headline says “Government Land”. The text goes on to say that any use of government land is prohibited, and persons engaging in that use will be prosecuted. And the message is signed District Land Office Shatin, with a telephone number for inquiries. The whole story is then repeated in Chinese. Nearby there is another copy of the same sign in case you are approaching from up the valley. How did this happen?
Behind the sign you can see a more or less flat patch with no substantial trees on it. Although nature is now reclaiming it you can see it was cultivated once. In fact back in the 1990s it was cultivated by the Shatin Junior Police Call. The JPC is a well-intentioned youth organisation run by police officers in the hope that young people can develop a warm relationship with their local Force before they reach the stop and search age group. In those days the Shatin JPC was teaching its members farming. The field now reverting to jungle was then a beautifully organised vegetable patch, with long rows of prosperous looking crops. It was impressive. I never met the leader of this enterprise because my walking hours did not coincide with his presence, but some of my colleagues met him (the Baptist University staff quarters are just down the road) and reported that he was impressive too. The JPC farm was surrounded by a chain-link fence, and access was over a rather informal looking bridge over the stream, and a gate.
Eventually the police farming enthusiast was, I suppose, transferred to other duties or places. The Shatin JPC turned to other ways of amusing potential delinquents and the farm was abandoned. Someone removed the gate, but two plastic watchmen’s huts remained. One had been the toolshed and one the toilet. There ensued a long period in which the field was virtually deserted. It was visited by the odd dog walker (me) and I suppose by some of the wargames enthusiasts, because their little white pellets could be seen around the place.
A few years ago it attracted the attention of some amateur farmers. Attempts at long rows of vegetables appeared, along with some rather elaborate water arrangements and some climbing frames forbeans and such. This did nobody any harm. Indeed the number of people who knew it was happening could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Somehow, though, word of these goings-on reached the Shatin District Land Office. And suddenly, action! One day I turned up with the dog to find that everything had changed. The farm had been ploughed up, the water holes had been filled in, the huts had been removed, as had the bridge. And instead there were the two signs.
This does not, in my opinion, reflect much credit on Shatin’s district administration. They do not cut grass, they do not upkeep paths, they do not fix bridges and they do not organise any constructive use of the countryside. But let someone start a small farm on an obscure and unused piece of government land, and officials will trek into the middle of nowhere to vandalize the installation and install, at unimaginable expense, large signs announcing that there is a dog in this manger.
Still, if you want to see government land being used for public purposes rather than private ones, it is nice to know that officials are empowered to remove unauthorised structures and if necessary prosecute those who installed them. The question which this raises is why the legal position is apparently different in Yuen Long. Government attitudes to illegal land use in Wang Chau village seem to be disappointingly limp compared with the robust approach to such matters exhibited in Shatin. I realize that there are legal obstacles to preventing farmers from vandalizing their fields and turning to anti-social crops like empty shipping containers or construction machinery resting between engagements. But there is no legal obstacle to dealing with such activities on government land. Why were the nameless farmers in my valley not offered “soft lobbying” of the kind bestowed on trespassers with political connections? Rule of law, anyone?