By Elaine Yu
Its sprawling greens and woodland have made Hong Kong’s historic Fanling golf course a favourite with homegrown and international stars, but it is now under threat after being listed for potential housing development.
As the government seeks solutions for the space-starved city’s lack of decent homes, the club argues that sacrificing a world-class sports venue is a short-sighted move.
But grass roots campaigners say the prime spot in the north of Hong Kong should not remain a playground for the wealthy elite.
Located near the border with mainland China, the colonial-era course is part of the Hong Kong Golf Club and has hosted the Hong Kong Open, a mainstay of the European and Asian Tours, every year since 1959.
Leading players including former world number one Rory McIlroy, Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Hong Kong golfing star Tiffany Chan have spoken out against bulldozing the site, which is one of 18 options earmarked by the government for affordable housing as it scrambles to find new land.
“Losing even one golf course would severely impact Hong Kong’s ability to develop talent and provide opportunities for youngsters to learn and play the game,” said Ian Gardner, general manager of the Hong Kong Golf Club.
Surrounded by urban hustle, the Fanling complex is an oasis of ancient trees and diverse wildlife, including turtles, owls and butterflies.
The oldest of its three 18-hole courses was built in 1911 on land that was home to the centuries-old graves of indigenous clans, whose descendants now have to skirt the greens to pay tribute to their ancestors.
Its clubhouse features a men-only bar and a plush members’ lounge where old photos and maps as well as a letter from Queen Elizabeth II’s private secretary adorn the walls.
The club faithful say Fanling’s history should justify its survival.
Members received a letter earlier this year assuring them that the club was working “very hard” to protect their interests.
“The trees and all the layout, and the history behind it with all the well-known golfers that played here — it’s irreplaceable,” said Tim Tang, 32, a former professional golfer who coaches at the club.
Symbol of inequality
Some critics say the government is under-using space in Hong Kong which is already vacant or has been hoarded by developers as land banks for potential future projects.
They argue there is plenty of existing room available for affordable housing without touching green areas and that the small group of influential real estate giants in the city prioritise building profit-making upmarket units.
But for others the golf course is fair game and a visceral symbol of Hong Kong’s inequalities, set against the backdrop of spiralling property prices and rents which force many residents to cram into tiny homes.
Chanting “Land belongs to the people!” and “The grass roots don’t want elite golf courses!”, protesters filled up holes on the course in March using mud scooped from a nearby village where demolition work has begun for a controversial development plan.
Joining one of the city’s numerous private sports and recreational clubs can cost hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Hong Kong dollars. Some are said to have decades-long waiting lists.
Although Fanling’s Gardner pointed out the club offers special access for promising junior athletes each year, playing a round there is out of reach for the majority.
Non-members can use the Fanling course Monday to Friday, but have to pay a fee of HK$1,100 ($140) for 18 holes.
A corporate membership for the Hong Kong Golf Club goes for HK$17 million, according to one agent.
The club refused to divulge its individual joining fees or the length of its waiting list but said monthly fees for members to access its two properties range from HK$700 to HK$3,000.
Private clubs are too exclusive and depend on a “system of privileged memberships” while benefiting from low rents on their swaths of prime land, says Mark Mak, senior researcher at environmental group Green Sense.
Mak says low government rents mean the golf club is “subsidised by public resources while not actually serving public interests”. He proposes partially redeveloping Fanling for housing or turning it into a park or public golf course.
Private sports clubs originally paid only a token premium or nothing at all when land was granted to them by the government through leases which offered generous terms to develop sports and recreational facilities.
The government typically charges clubs an annual rent of three percent of their property’s rateable value, according to the city’s home affairs bureau.
The Fanling golf course says it paid HK$2.53 million (US$322,410) in annual rent last year to the government for 170 hectares, which amounts to HK$0.14 per square foot.
By comparison, the average rental price per square foot for a residential property in Hong Kong is HK$35.9, according to Centaline Property Agency.
But Gardner justified the low rents by saying sports clubs were not for profit and had ploughed their wealth into earning “international renown”.
“For many, many decades they have continued to pour money into developing these world-class facilities,” he told AFP.