HKFP Features HKFP Reports Hong Kong Interviews Politics & Protest

Against all odds: New district councillor Chan Tsz-wai says residents’ needs should come before politics

Chan Tsz-wai, a 27-year-old newly elected district councillor for Jordan South, says he is committed to bringing about change in a community where residents’ concerns have been previously overlooked.

Last year’s district council election saw around 2.94 million people – 71 per cent of registered voters – cast their ballots. In comparison, the turnout rate for the 2015 local election was only 46 per cent.

Following five months of protests sparked by a now axed extradition bill, the 2019 election was considered a referendum on Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s government. The ensuing landslide victory for democrats propelled many first-timers such as Chan into the council.

Chan Tsz-wai office

Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP

“I knew I was about to win when the turnout rate hit almost 70 per cent at around 9pm on election day,” he told HKFP. With 1,516 votes compared to 1,451 for his rival Chris Ip of the DAB, Chan took the seat by a slim margin.

“It was a referendum on [candidates’] political stances owing to the movement,” he added. “I was not a prominent figure before the election.”

Chan’s handwritten electoral message went viral online: “Follow up on community infrastructure projects; care for the underprivileged; improve transportation facilities; facilitate council meeting discussions. Form a workgroup to investigate the August 31 Prince Edward MTR Station incident,” it read.

Chan Tsz-wai district council

Chan Tsz-wai’s electoral message went viral online. Photo: 2019 District Council Election Website.

Chris Ip Ngo-tung district council

Chan’s opponent, Chris Ip’s electoral message. Photo: 2019 District Council Election website.

Jordan South is packed with single, private residential and commercial buildings over 40 years old: “It takes more physical work to engage with my neighbourhood,” Chan said. “Out of the 6,000 followers of my Facebook page, only about 100 of them are residents of my district.”

Unlike many district councillors who use social media to publicise information, Chan prefers to make posters and set up street stalls to communicate with his constituents, many of whom are elderly and do not have Facebook accounts.

But contrary to popular belief, Chan was not a so-called “parachute candidate,” with little knowledge of the area he was running to represent. A Jordan resident, he said he had been committed to serving the community months before the election.

Jordan South Constituency Boundary Map

Jordan South, Chan’s constituency. Photo: 2019 District Council Election website

Chan said his political enlightenment traced back to typhoon Mangkhut in September 2018, after which he volunteered to clear debris in devastated areas of Tung Ping Chau – a far-flung outlying island: “The activity astounded me so I decided to give back to my own community,” he added.

He recalled seeing Ip campaigning on the street and saying “My party’s political stance comes before everything” – a line that prompted Chan to run for election: “District councillors ought to consider the needs of residents first and foremost,” he said.

Asked if the job turned out tougher than expected, Chan conceded that he was still getting the hang of it: “There is literally no day off and the work-life boundary is blurred.”

He added that 80 per cent of his time is spent replying to messages and handling inquiries. Chan said he has been struck by the amount of “tedious work” that comes with being a district councillor. He collects numerous gripes, mostly about light pollution, illegal parking, leaking pipes and noise.

During the protests, graffiti was scattered over roads and pavements, so the government has had them repainted, an unexpected source of complaints: “Many wheelchair users and elderly people who push trolleys found the repainted zebra lines bumpy. They come to district councillors no matter how minor the issue seems. It is relevant to their lives,” said Chan.

Chan Tsz-wai roll-up banner

Photo: Chan Tsz-wai Facebook page.

During the unrest last year, Chan would live stream police-protester standoffs in Yau Tsim Mong District, for example, in Harbour City and Prince Edward – where monthly demonstrations would take place to memorialise the Prince Edward MTR station incident on August 31, when officers stormed carriages and beat people inside with batons.

“I would ask arrestees for their names as a record and interfere if I witnessed police brutality at the scene,” he said. “When live streaming, what is captured on camera is indisputable. I will question the police with the footage later.”

Chan Tsz-wai Prince Edward

Chan Tsz-wai in Prince Edward live streaming. Photo: Kero/United Social Press.

With a monthly salary of HK$34,000, Chan said he has never considered moving out of his sub-divided flat and would only be willing to do so when he starts his own family.

Having lived in confined quarters for six years since moving out of his family home at the age of 21, he said he feels no pressing need to find a larger place: “I used to live in an old tong lau [tenement building] with no elevators, where I had to climb nine floors of stairs to home,” he said.

Chan Tsz-wai pharmacy

Chan Tsz-wai checks out the price of hygiene products. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Asked how he felt reading through online comments accusing him of being underqualified for the job because he passed no subjects in his public examinations, Chan hit back, saying: “Qualifications should not be a hindrance if you have the heart to serve.”

He hopes the District Council can find resources to help people with lower educational backgrounds who want to serve the community, and he wishes to study for a social work diploma in the future.

Chan Tsz-wai bus

Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP

In a video interview with i-Cable News, he previously said he did not want to hire a university graduate as his assistant as they tended to be “self-centred,” plus he might find it difficult to communicate with such a person. “Rest in peace Jordan South,” a user wrote online in response.

Responding to criticism, Chan said he should have phrased his thoughts better by saying that he valued ability over qualifications.

Chan Tsz-wai Prudential Centre

Chan Tsz-wai. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

The District Councils are defined as advisory bodies, which Chan said gave them limited power to execute policies: “I hope that after my four-year term, Hongkongers will stay alert and concerned about issues in their own neighbourhood. Active participation matters at all times, not only when there are ongoing movements.” Citizens have tended to attend district council meetings more often since last November, he said.

“I propose that the Bureau should be officially videotaping the meetings,” Chan said. He thought this would improve transparency and engagement. “In the past some district council meetings were closed-door and not even the press was allowed in. How can you expect citizens to participate and monitor?”

Against all odds: New district councillor Chan Tsz-wai says residents' needs should come before politics