The redevelopment of Kwun Tong is not filling everyone with utopian dreams of modern living
It is one of the oldest ‘new’ residential neighbourhoods in Hong Kong, but Kwun Tong is in the midst of a crisis. The Urban Renewal Authority has come calling, and for those in its way, it’s time to shut up shop and crawl out quietly.
I’d arrived in Kwun Tong in search of a restaurant I’d heard about two years previously but which, in a sign of things to come, had since closed down. I hadn’t expected the afternoon to turn into a photo shoot for another piece about urban redevelopment, but with a few serendipitous turns and an explorer’s instinct urging me on, I stumbled upon a story.
A market of empty outdoor stalls led to a chain link fence and a row of low-rise shops. The shops were shuttered save for the final three. Hand-painted banners had been hung above the store fronts, while paper birds and posters were stuck around the entrance and to the walls nearby. A few newspaper articles had been pinned up too. One of them was in English. I started reading.
It turns out I was on Yan Shun Lane, part of the 5.35 hectare Kwun Tong town centre redevelopment project, first proposed in 1998 and now very much happening. With the clearing of the 24 buildings earmarked for demolition well underway, most of those in line for eviction had already accepted the government’s HK$110,000 compensation package and moved out. But with the 30th September deadline having now passed, there were still those who refused to be ousted.
According to the South China Morning Post, of the 29 traders occupying government land in the Yan Shun Lane area, 25 had moved voluntarily. Most had been relocated to government operated markets elsewhere in Kowloon. But for those left remaining, not only is the compensation package offered by the Urban Renewal Authority inadequate, the whole discussion of compensation somewhat misses the point.
Having come together in the 60s and 70s when the hawking trade was much more widespread and regulation more relaxed, many of the Yan Shun Lane businesses had operated for decades without government interference. Like those in the adjacent Mut Wah Street Market, the premises were originally makeshift, though over time they became an integral part of the Kwun Tong social fabric. With no legal right over the land on which they operated, however, they have always existed in a legal limbo, knowing they would have little recourse to action should the government come knocking.
Like the residents of the recently World Monuments Fund-listed Pokfulam Village, in the eyes of the government, the Yan Shun Lane tenants are squatters. Their stalls are classed as illegal structures which “pose serious hygiene and safety problems,” while the “poor sanitary conditions”, according to the Urban Renewal Authority’s proposal, contribute to “a hazardous living environment.” The compensation package may have persuaded some, but for others, the evictions are seen as the latest in a long line of mistreatment of Hong Kong’s small businesses in the name of Urban Renewal.
For one trader, Eric Leung Kam-hung, compensation is worth nothing if he can’t continue his business when he moves to new premises. Leung’s 35-year-old Kok Chai Bird Store is the last racing pigeon shop in Hong Kong, and although he has been granted relocation in Mong Kok’s Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, concerns over bird flu have led the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to deny him the necessary licence to sell live birds.
As Mr Leung told the SCMP, “I’m not sure how I can cover the much higher rent by showing people photos of racing pigeons instead of selling them directly.” The only options left seem to be either to give the birds away or hand them over to the authorities and condemn them to their fate. “Money is not what I want,” he says.”I just want to be able to operate my business and maintain my livelihood.” Moving to Mong Kok would mean thirty years of building his business will have disappeared in an instant.
There have already been protests. Banners have been hoisted and even a steel pigeon sculpture created by local artists has been erected as a symbol of the residents’ resistance. But despite the government having doubled its initial offer to the equivalent of two years rent, the remaining tenants are readying themselves for a fight to the end.
At a total estimated cost of over HK$30 billion, the Kwun Tong redevelopment project will be the largest single project ever undertaken by the Urban Renewal Authority. By the time the project is finished, over 500 shops and stalls will have been closed down to make way for the new construction.
But in one of the poorest urban neighbourhoods in Hong Kong, many are asking whether redevelopment rather than renewal is the best way forward. Family market stalls selling cheap, everyday goods replaced by a shopping mall; affordable housing making way for apartment buildings many of Kwun Tong’s current residents will be unable to afford. The area may be rundown and in need of a makeover, but the treatment of the Yan Shun Lane occupants has left many residents asking who the Kwun Tong redevelopment is really for.
As another hawker, Chan Chi-yung, told the South China Morning Post: “I built my business with my bare hands and have been here for 40 years. All of a sudden I’m a squatter. The government has shown us no respect.” The Renewal Authority has already said no more compensation will be forthcoming. For Eric Leung and his fellow traders, it is now a question of when, rather than if, the developers finally move in.
Read More: For more about redevelopment in Hong Kong, see my post Pokfulam Village: On the run from the developers, to read how one of Hong Kong Island’s last remaining villages is being threatened from without.