Hong Kong villagers not convinced they’ll benefit by selling ancestral land in New Territories to developers

·5-min read

Villagers in Hong Kong’s rural north are unconvinced by a government plan to convert their ancestral land into much-needed public housing, with some accusing the authorities of favouring developers’ interests at their expense.

Some preferred to build homes on the land for themselves, while others said the complex ownership structure would make the government plan impractical.

The ancestral “tso/tong” lands in the rural New Territories are held collectively by family clans or groups, with hundreds or even thousands of shared owners.

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In her policy address last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor suggested making it easier for villagers to sell about 2,400 hectares of ancestral land to private interests for redevelopment and housing.

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The easing of restrictions could happen in two or three years’ time, according to a recent interview Lam gave to the media.

The plots in question are held by more than 7,000 groups in about 400 villages. Stringent rules apply to selling such land, as unanimous consent of all stakeholders is often needed.

The Heung Yee Kuk, the powerful rural body representing the interests of New Territories villagers, has pledged to work with the government to review and iron out proposals within a year.

It has suggested that obtaining consent from 80 per cent of members – rather than 100 per cent – should be sufficient to trigger a sale.

But village leaders and others interviewed by the Post are not yet convinced.

Fan Hoi-wang, head of Ho Pui village in Pat Heung, Yuen Long, said he wished the government gave priority to the villagers’ housing needs instead.

“Why can’t we build houses for ourselves on our tso/tong land?” he asked.

Ho Pui village head Fan Hoi-wang (right) is seen at the Pat Heung Rural Committee offices. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Ho Pui village head Fan Hoi-wang (right) is seen at the Pat Heung Rural Committee offices. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

He suggested combining ancestral plots into development zones to build “small houses” under a colonial-era policy that allows every male indigenous villager, or ding, to build a three-storey home with each floor limited to 700 sq ft.

“This is also a way to increase housing supply and resolve the issue of rising property prices,” he said.

His village near Tai Lam Tunnel has about 800 residents and covers a total of 46.5 hectares, more than a fifth of which is ancestral land.

“We have seldom been approached by developers,” Fan said.

He said some villagers were not keen to sell their ancestral land, preferring to continue passing it down from generation to generation.

Fan said he believed that getting approval to sell would remain hard even if the threshold for consent was lowered to 80 per cent.

He pointed out that one traditional group in Pat Heung had more than 10,000 members, and some family clans could have as many as 3,000 people.

“You can imagine if you want to sell the land, there could be conflicts over personal grievances and financial issues,” he said.

A 70,000 sq ft ancestral land allotment in the New Territories is rented out as an orchid farm. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
A 70,000 sq ft ancestral land allotment in the New Territories is rented out as an orchid farm. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Leung Fuk-yuen, former chairman of the Shap Pat Heung Rural Committee in Yuen Long district, said most villagers he knew welcomed the idea of lowering the approval threshold to 80 per cent, but agreed that disputes would still arise.

“One common issue is that male descendants might not want to share the benefits with female descendants based on their traditional patriarchal mindset, making it difficult to reach unanimous consent,” said Leung, recalling such a dispute in his village in 2018.

One way out might be for tso/tong members to form a company and share ownership with interested developers rather than selling outright.

“That way, we won’t lose our family assets,” he said.

Chan Fu Pang, vice-chairman of the Ta Kwu Ling District Rural Committee, is one of the owners of about 400 hectares at Ta Kwu Ling, mostly wasted farmland.

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He was supportive of having his ancestral land used for public housing but questioned why the government preferred to collaborate with developers rather than the villagers.

“We don’t mind if the government takes back the land for public housing, but in reality, the government puts the land up for bidding by the private sector, which is concerned with turning a profit rather than addressing the housing crisis,” Chan said.

Even senior members of the kuk do not appear in full agreement on the way forward.

Kingsley Sit Ho-yin, director of its think tank, the Heung Yee Kuk Research Centre, said it was not yet clear how far the government’s tso/tong proposal would go towards solving the city’s land shortage.

He said there had been no comprehensive study even though the Home Affairs Department set up a working group with the kuk in 2018 on tso/tong matters and data on the number and total area of such sites was still not available.

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“I am rather doubtful of the government’s sincerity. How could they raise a suggestion on land supply without statistics to back it up?” he asked.

Many village leaders themselves do not know the details of the ancestral land in their areas.

One leader, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Post he had no idea how many sites were in his village, or where they were, and could not provide the information when the kuk asked for it.

Another source said most villages had not responded yet to the kuk’s request.

Sit said it would be no simple matter asking tso/tong members to sell.

“The government has avoided issues in the New Territories for years. They should play a more active role in developing the rural land and stop passing the buck to us,” he said.

Additional reporting by Rachel Yeo

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